In short, despite a slew of copycats attempting to capitalize on the lightning-in-a-bottle critical and financial success that Blair Witch rightly deserved, no "found footage" film after was capable of reproducing its true strength -- the feeling of confinement brought on by the handheld camera.
I searched in vain to try an find a clip online that displayed this accurately, but trust me when I say that the editing in Blair Witch is masterful. I would say that there are sections of the film -- maybe even the whole film -- that are so sharply and suddenly cut together that they may even constitute a complete montage. The idea behind using "found footage" is that the film looks like it's made by a bunch of idiots, meaning that the cinematography is a mess and the editing is just kinda jumbled together. Scenes in Blair Witch are abruptly and often inexplicably cut short, and just often as often, the scene opens at least 10-15 seconds after the action in question has already occurred. Often times, there will be a smash cut followed by a completely different change of scene and somebody going, "Did you hear that too?"
This is great for two reasons. Number one, this is extremely unconventional storytelling, and I can imagine how that can frustrate the audience, and number two, this is meant to frustrate the audience, which can also frustrate the audience. You, as an audience member, are desperately trying to see what is going on. You're trying to catch a glimpse of the monster, or the rednecks that are stalking our filmmakers, or trying to deduce if the filmmakers themselves are coordinating this entire fiasco for the sake of creating a good film, but you can't, because of that fucking camera. I can easily see how this adds frustration, but I would argue that it also brings tension. Not only is the entire film a great example of "Show, Don't Tell" -- the backbone of any horror movie -- but stays within the confines of its premise.
And it's that premise that other films tried to replicate and ended up embarrassing themselves over. Again, I tried to find a clip for this and failed, but hopefully you remember it, because it was the second dumbest thing in Paranormal Activity. The entire film is a combination of handheld footage and what I'll call "security camera" footage -- shot in static. Anyway, the "security" footage is fine, because it obeys the laws that it sets up for itself -- this camera stays put and records one room, at one angle. The handheld footage, not so much. For one, the movie fails to jump that hurdle that all handhelds must pass: Why are you filming this now? The protagonist in Paranormal Activity shoots everything. He shoots himself meeting someone for the first time. He shoots himself having a regular conversation with his wife. He shoots himself watching the footage that he shot. At some point, the camera becomes omniscient; it sees all. There is even a scene where he's shooting himself playing with a Ouija Board, then sets the camera down as it's still rolling and walks away so that we, the audience, can see that gasp the board is on fire. You're not even making a "found footage" film at that point. It's just "footage".
Compare to Blair Witch , where a scene begins with two of the filmmakers saying, "Why the fuck are you filming this? Turn the camera off," and then the scene ends. Hurdle jumped.
I found Cloverfield actually be a far worse offender in this regard, because with Cloverfield, it didn't even try to present the illusion of handheld camera. Watch these mad camera skills, yo:
UGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH Christ I hate this fucking movie so much why did I decide to use it as an example
Alright, so first, the hurdle: Is it reasonable for him to be filming right now? No, not at all. He's not even filming, you know, the actual things that are happening, which is a huge mass of people attempting to cross the bridge. No, this guy determined to chronicle the events of a giant monster attacking New York thinks that the best use of his time and energy during an evacuation is filming a guy having a very boring phone conversation. Hurdle failed.
More importantly, look at the way this whole thing is shot and composed. Fuck dude, I couldn't even get all my friends in center frame with a handheld camera with 100% accuracy the way this guy can, but that's mainly because I don't have friends. Plus, isn't he standing, like, in a middle of a crowded evacuation. I haven't been to Brooklyn Bridge, but I imagine that a) even on a regular day, somebody is going to bump into me and prevent me from holding that camera perfectly still b) it will be noisy as fuck at all times and there is no way I could hold a conversation with two people 20 and 50 yards ahead of me c) but even if I couldn't hear them, there's no way that I could even see them in the middle of a crowd especially during these conditions. I mean, honestly, JJ Abrams, why don't you just fucking make a movie at this point, if the camera and sound are going to do whatever it is you want them to do? Oh, I know, because you're a hack director and could only sell tickets based on a shitty gimmick.
I mentioned before that Blair Witch deals mainly in a lack of information, but I want to call that confinement. What I mean is this. Take a look at this screenshot:
Ok, notice how grainy and shitty that looks first. Then, notice how askew that shot is. This is not running from a giant monster or crossing a bridge during an evacuation, but just a regular conversation. That is what holding a heavy camera all day long looks like.
But most importantly, look at DAT NAUGHTY, SEXY ASPECT RATIO. Not only does the 4:3 make it look like "not a movie" with the big stupid black bars on the sides, but the black bars on the sides, top and bottom give the whole film a "keyhole" look. You're not even given enough information to see what's going on to the left and right of this character. The characters may be lost in these expansive woods, but you might as well be in one of those boxes in cartoons that have a hole in the side for one eyeball to peep through.
To its credit, Paranormal Activity realized that this dearth of information is one of Blair Witch's greatest strengths, and attempted to copy this by limiting the audience's viewing not by cutting off the sides of the screen, but by keeping the camera immobile (for some of the time). Both of these movies also succeed in achieving uniformity of location; Blair Witch keeps the action located in "woods" which all look the same and thus require no new information to the audience, and Paranormal Activity stays pretty much within the same house (with a large chunk of it in one room). Keeping your audience uninformed means that you have to give them less information -- or should I say, only the crucial information. Unlike the turd that is Cloverfield whose locale is the entirety of the biggest fucking city on planet city. Seriously, just from memory alone, I can recall: apartment, street, bridge, underground, hospital, street, building, helicopter and central park locations, all of which have to be introduced through the medium of visuals and thank god we don't have a handheld camera for that or it would be hard.
Blair Witch captures a sense of confinement within its visuals, its sounds, its editing, and even with its characters. Truthfully, the script (and don't say, "The actors improvised and so there's not a script it doesn't count" because yes, it does count) was a failed experiment in improv and horror that has rightfully been forgotten. However, to its credit, the film rotates the "idiot ball" between its main characters. One person fucks up or acts like an asshole or breaks down, and everybody else is all like, "Hey man, just flow with the go, dude", and then no less than five minutes later, another character breaks down and the previous fuckup takes a turn being the sensible one. It creates an atmosphere where they are all fuckups, but they are also all reasonable at the same time, and so the net result is that they actual don't fall victim to "horror movie logic" where they consistently do dumb shit to get people killed. Instead, they actual play it pretty smart (following the creak, walking in one cardinal direction, and yelling a lot are all things I would do if I were actually lost in a forest), but you're never know who's going to lose it next, and whether or not that breakdown is going to have serious consequences.
Compare to Cloverfield, where our protagonist is the epitome of dumb, risking his life and his friends' lives for the sake of a character to whom we've only met for a fraction of a scene. Yeah, ok, Homer and the Odyssey and all that, but Penelope was a legit badass and loyal wife. The ex-girlfriend character is nothing more than pretty.
But I want to talk about confinement some more, because I think it's crucial. Take a look at these clips from Paranormal Activity. (BONUS: The Ouija Board clip I mentioned earlier just happened to be at the end of this video.)
Now, despite all the problems it has, this movie did have some good moments. The first and third clips are not one of them. The first clip does have the main characters exit "offscreen" for a while, but I would argue that this does not constitute any kind of "lack of information" because you know the result: She kills him gud. Would it have been any different or more tense if we saw him pick him up in the middle of the room instead of outside of it? The end result is the same, and we can easily piece together what happened out of our sight.
Cloverfield actually seems to relish showing the audience Eh.Vuh.Ree.Thing. Even just ignoring all the logical missteps in this scene (where did that monster get a bomb?) there is nothing left to the imagination. We see the explosion, we see the result, we see the statue of liberty. If Blair Witch is the girl who makes love with the lights off, and Paranormal Activity is the one that has sex with the lights on, Cloverfield greets you when you first walk into the room with her gaping asshole in your face. LOOK AT IT. SEE HOW SCARY THE MONSTER IS IT BROKE A 200-YEAR-OLD STATUE UHHH
Notice how when the camera "fails" when they're moving down the steps that it really didn't need to? Like, it didn't change anything or hide anything from the audience. There was not anything interesting going on in that staircase. In fact, why didn't you just cut that fucking scene. SCENE 1: Rooftop. SCENE 2: Street. There, I fixed it for you.
Cloverfield makes me fucking sad. In fact, it made me fucking sad back in 2008 the first time I hated it, in one of my very first online movie reviews ever, I said: "If you're going to have a first-person cameraman in the movie, you have to have things that the character doesn't see. Hud doesn't really miss anything and I wished to god that he would have. " Fuck man, 24-year-old Kevin was pretty dumb and he could still figure this shit out.
I leave you with the final clip of Blair Witch, which involves navigating a house which despite has two characters walking around in two different places most of the time with nothing really happening, still manages to leave you much more in-the-dark than Cloverfield does: