The Blair Witch Project is 80 minutes long, and was produced for an estimated $60,000. It features no big names, no glitzy special effects, and only the barest thread of a story. There isn’t even much in the way of a script – most of the dialogue was improvised by the film’s leads, and their scenes were shot on bargain-bin cameras.
And it’s one of the scariest movies ever made.
The makers of Blair Witch understood that they could maximize their film by minimizing its expenses. By telling the story from the perspective of an amateur documentary crew, the film eschewed overblown Hollywood effects in favor of smaller character moments and more psychological scares. As Roger Ebert elucidated, “The Blair Witch Project is a reminder that what really scares us is the stuff we can’t see. The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark.”
Ebert was touching on a point that, by that period in film history, was feeling staid and antiquated. A few months after Blair Witch blew up the box office, Hollywood released The Haunting, a remake of the 1963 classic from Robert Wise. The original Haunting, about a group of strangers spending the night in an abandoned mansion, spooked audiences on release, and remains one of the scariest films of its era. It benefits largely from its subtle storytelling, which never explicitly answers the “Is the house haunted?” question, opting instead to scar us with psychological whips. Jan de Bont’s 1999 remake, however, makes its answers all too clear, with an action-packed, effects-laden climax that sends nuance and subtlety straight out the window. The remake doesn’t leave us questioning or skeptical – and as such, it doesn’t leave us feeling scared.
In recent decades, as technology continues to improve, Hollywood filmmakers have grown more eager to show off their skill with CGI effects in all their spiffy detail. In some cases, this can work wonders – how many of us stared in awe the first time we witnessed the soaring vistas of Avatar, or the mind-bending dreamlands of Inception? These films strived to create strange and unusual worlds, yet made them look and feel as believable as the genuine article. CG effects are a blockbuster film’s bread-and-butter.
But sadly, that sentiment extends to horror films as well – and the results are far less effective. A perfect encapsulation would be the Alien franchise. The 1979 original had audiences screaming (thankfully, they weren’t in space), its horrors enhanced by how rarely we saw the title creature. But as the franchise continued into the 1990s and 2000s, the aliens were granted more and more screentime, and more budget dollars were invested into their slick, slobbering appearance. By the time the aliens were exchanging blows with the notorious Predator, no credible filmgoer could still label the franchise a horror series.
A more recent example of this problem can be found in the IT films, based on the beloved Stephen King novel. The first IT, produced in 2017 at a meager $35 million budget, brilliantly tapped into primal childhood fears, its CG wizardry subdued (and only rarely graphic) even at the climax. The film proved to be a box-office smash, and a sequel was commissioned – with a heftier $79 million price tag. The extra money is certainly on display in IT: Chapter 2, which is far more graphic and over-the-top than its predecessor. It’s more an action flick than a psychological thriller, losing the fear factor that so perfectly distinguished the first film.
In its quest to be more explicit in its terror, IT: Chapter 2 exposes a deeper problem with many so-called horror films of the modern era – their blindness to the idea that, if portrayed in the right light, even the most lighthearted creations and scenarios can come off as tense and terrifying. Clowns, as many people (myself included) will attest, are not the fun-loving birthday attractions they claim to be. Rather, they are greasepaint-slathered hellbeasts, white-pallor monstrosities with blood-red perma-grins. The sheer innocuity of their demeanor is precisely what makes them so unsettling to so many – the friendlier a clown appears and behaves, the more he leaves open to our imagination – just what is hiding behind those paint-smeared eyes and beneath that undersized hat? By dialing back the explicit onscreen violence, the first IT film (as well as, decades earlier, the ABC miniseries) left more room for us to project our unspoken fears upon. But the sequel preferred to explain how scared we should be, in great and unambiguous detail.
Another current example (though one seen, thankfully, by far fewer eyes) is The Banana Splits Movie. Based on the classic Hanna-Barbera children’s show of the 1960s, the film reimagines the Banana Splits (four large animal androids) as the stars of a violent, R-rated horror flick, who turn from beloved children’s icons into bloodthirsty murderers when their show is cancelled. They begin slaughtering people in all sorts of horrific ways, while retaining the appearances and cartoony voices that charmed real-life children all those years ago.
There’s a clever idea at the heart of the movie about the perverting of nostalgia and the off-putting world of puppet programming – the Splits, with their frozen features and disembodied voices, have earned a reputation as some of the creepier characters in children’s entertainment. And the first 30 minutes of the movie do a commendable job of building tension and conveying the underlying eeriness of the Splits. But once the violence kicks in – and hoo boy, does it ever kick in – The Banana Splits Movie tosses out any attempt at genuine chills in favor of gory stabbings and decapitations (many enhanced by the aforementioned CG wizardry). It’s gross, no doubt. But scary? Not nearly as much as the original show.
With computer effects growing more impressive with each year, we can’t expect them to fade away anytime soon. And indeed, plenty of films have benefited exponentially from their use of impressive and pixelated visuals. But the horror genre should not forget the sentiment that inspired it, and continues to create the biggest scares to this day. Sometimes, less is more.