I didn’t get a chance to see The Blair Witch Project until its fifteenth anniversary in 2014. Later that year, I watched several of Werner Herzog’s films, taking in a second viewing of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. The similarities, much to my surprise, leapt out at me. An incredibly influential little horror film, made by a couple guys fresh out of college, was itself influenced by one of the canonical works of world cinema — not so much in style, but in its themes and overall effect. While Aguirre is rightly considered an adventure film, a naturalistic and deadpan tragedy that avoids the shocks of horror, Herzog’s intentions are quite compatible with what Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were doing. In each case, the protagonists’ adversary is multivalent and open to interpretation. The enemy may be an unseen and ever-present hunter; it may be the impersonal, unforgiving vastness of nature; it may be the devastating faults of the protagonists themselves; or, of course, it may be all of the above. But it’s the third possibility that’s clearly on the filmmakers’ minds. These films are portraits of human desolation, something that strikes from the inside out.
Even though these movies look nothing alike, there are some similarities of stylistic intent. Herzog, an accomplished documentarian, is famous for an obsessive pursuit of realism in his location shooting. There’s no substitute for a real raft on a real river, with a real horse and a real princely dining table resting on it. The Blair Witch Project (this constitutes a spoiler for anyone who’s somehow never heard this, so feel free to watch the movie before continuing) mimics the effect of reconstructing found footage from a video camera and a 16-mm camera. The people on screen are actors (for the most part), but the film takes an innovative approach to making it seem like the three main characters really did get lost in the woods. Every frame of the film is produced by a camera ostensibly held by one of those three. Aguirre, which tells a sixteenth-century story, naturally opts for the more traditional “invisible” camera technique. Both films, though, begin with similar explanatory text that implies an awful fate for the characters and somberly cites the sole surviving record (a monk’s diary, in the case of Aguirre).
History and myth intertwine in these stories. Aguirre is heavily based on one of the historical quests for the mythical city of El Dorado. The penumbral conflict, then, is between the colonialist Spanish and the oppressed native peoples of South America. There was a touch of supernatural fear to this relationship, though Herzog handles it lightly, with the specter of cannibalism coming up only every now and then. Besides those natives that the Spanish have enslaved, the actual encounters are few and almost always hostile. Arrows fly at the rafts from all directions, the shooters obscured by the jungle. There’s even one example of something that occurs frequently in The Blair Witch Project, the morning discovery of something terrifying that happened overnight. The young documentary filmmakers in the latter film are much more vulnerable than the Spanish soldiers, possessing only meager supplies and insufficient expertise. An investigation into folklore in Maryland uncovers a dark past. Whether banal human wickedness has transformed into a truly supernatural form, the film leaves tantalizingly unanswered. If the natives in the earlier film are mostly hidden, the witch, famously, is never seen at all. The recording equipment picks up an array of spine-chilling and inexplicable sounds, and I doubt any viewer could seriously attribute them to mortal backwoods psychopaths. But the limited point-of-view of the cameras leaves plenty of room to wonder what did or did not happen.
What’s never in doubt is that the characters in each film, regardless of their technology and early confidence, are ill-equipped to survive in the wilderness. One of Herzog’s signature moves is lingering on images of civilizational folly, such as a heavy cannon being dragged through the mud or a thoroughbred horse stranded on a riverbank. The Spanish cling to notions of gentility long past the point of hopelessness. On an unfamiliar continent, in search of a rumored treasure that could be literally anywhere, they overestimate the work that a single expedition can do. It’s only inaccurate to call them “lost” because they don’t even have a known destination in mind. The kids in The Blair Witch Project, on the other hand, do. What foils them is a more compact form of naïveté. Heather (Heather Donahue), the director of the film they’re working on, tries to reassure her companions more than once that, in twentieth-century America, it’s impossible to stay lost for too long. So she underestimates just how big an American forest can still be when you’re on foot. All three of them learn that, even with a map and a compass, staying on track can be extremely difficult. Descriptions of the witch make the skin crawl, but there are no more horrifying words spoken than “It’s the same log.”
We can sympathize with these spiraling crises, no question, but ultimately there’s a monomaniacal leader behind everything. The title character in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, played by Klaus Kinski, allows his ambition to drive him mad. Orchestrating a coup against the expedition’s leadership, he establishes a ruthless and unsentimental approach. He’s driven more by the desire to be famous than material greed, but in any case, his obsession proves impervious to the constraints of reality. His charisma is sufficient to keep his men on board, until attacks and disease have dwindled their number to a paltry few. Heather knows what she wants as well, going so far as to express disappointment when her companions want to go home just as things are starting to get weird. Above all, she wants to keep the cameras trained on the pitch-black night in case something appears. Unlike Aguirre, she doesn’t lose her humanity in the process, and one of the film’s iconic images is her confession and apology, delivered in extreme handheld close-up. Still, the ultimate tragedy of these characters is that they turn on each other, and Heather lacks the strength to hold them together.
In the end, both of these films are blessed with the gift of understatement. Herzog settles on a detached tone with surprising outbreaks of dark humor. Myrick and Sánchez keep most of the humor in the early going, but they display a deep respect for the power of suggestion and mystery. Blurry, shaky imagery has become cliche, and even here I sometimes struggle with its effects, but it’s hard to imagine people who are terrified for their lives doing anything different. The final payoff is sneakily insinuating, if also noticeably coy. Herzog, by contrast, pulls back at the end for a definitive visual statement, a panoramic view of his still-standing hero, granted an ironic kind of immortality. The very act of making these movies is, in this way, an act of wringing success out of destruction. They, and we, found something. It only cost them their lives.