While the found-footage approach to filmmaking has faded into obscurity in recent years this sub-genre of horror remains one of the genres best and is one of my personal favorites to this day. While found-footage filmmaking has not been exclusively used for horror it’s that genre that helped popularize it giving fans some of the most immersive cinema experiences ever. Two films specifically are largely responsible for the success of this sub-genre. Those movies are, of course, 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” and 2007’s “Paranormal Activity”. Some people love these films because of their use of simple filmmaking techniques to add to the realism while others see them as pretentious snooze fests. I personally happen to enjoy them both and seeing as these two films came around in different decades of cinema and helped establish my favorite horror sub-genre of horror as a marketable style I felt it was time to see which found-footage masterpiece is superior. This is “The Blair Witch Project” Versus “Paranormal Activity.
As with every Versus battle these two films will be compared using five factors. For this battle I will be comparing the films’ main characters, their invisible antagonists, their use of atmosphere, how effectively the found-footage gimmick is applied to the film and, of course, the scare factor. In the end the film with the most points will be crowned champion. So let’s get to it and see which found-footage classic takes the trophy. As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments and feel free to share your opinions of which of these films is the superior project.
ROUND 1: THE MAIN CHARACTERS
One thing that makes “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” so interesting is that both of them have very small casts. “Blair Witch” only focuses on three people while “Paranormal Activity” puts the spotlight on two people. Both casts find themselves pitted against an unseen entity that tortures them when they least expect it, but which one had better acting and more memorable performances overall? Let’s take a look
In the case of “The Blair Witch Project” the film follows Heather, Mike and Josh, who used their real names in the film to add to the realism. They are making a documentary on the fictional Blair Witch of Burkittsville, Maryland but when they get lost in the woods they begin to be haunted by the witch herself. The performances in this film aren’t bad actually considering the actors and actress were all newcomers at the time. Few can overlook Heather Donahue’s memorable confession scene and the fear these people experience feels real to the audience mostly because it was. Rumor has it that the cast was not told what would happen before it happened, only given notes in film reels to point them in a certain direction. As a result their frustration and screams were genuine and a lot of the dialogue was improvised. Their performances are literally grounded in reality and feel genuine as if we truly are seeing these people go through a living hell. While Donahue and her male partners Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard have not done much else since “The Blair Witch Project” they should be proud of what they brought to the table here to make this movie so incredibly engaging.
On the other hand “Paranormal Activity” feels much more rehearsed. Like “Blair Witch” the film’s actors used their real names, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, and their plight pits them against an unseen demon that begins to haunt their house leading Micah to record what happens while they sleep in the hopes of catching the monster in the act. Also like “Blair Witch”, “Paranormal Activity” had no solid script and utilized improvisation. With that in mind the actors are fine and there is some great chemistry between Katie and Micah making them a convincing couple. However, the performances aren’t quite a raw or believable as those in “Blair Witch” and, as I said, feel much more rehearsed than the former. That’s not to say that the acting isn’t up to snuff it’s just very clear to the viewer that they’re watching a film with actors whereas the cast of “Blair Witch” felt like real people going through a real terrifying moment. What’s more Micah himself isn’t great. He’s not horrible but he does seem to be trying a bit too hard to drive home his frustration with all the chaos. All that said, for pure effective realism alone the point in this round goes to “The Blair Witch Project”.
SCORE: “The Blair Witch Project” – 1 “Paranormal Activity” – 0
ROUND 2: THE ANTAGONIST
Both “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” depend on invisible enemies to terrorize their human characters. On one hand “Blair Witch” has the titular witch and on the other “Paranormal Activity” uses an invisible demon to haunt its characters. Both prove to be frightening forces that leave quite a mark on not only their targets but also the viewers, but which one is truly the better and more terrifying antagonist? Well it all depends on how you look at it.
In “The Blair Witch Project” it’s never truly revealed that the antagonist is the witch. It’s only implied. She also doesn’t to the damage all on her own. She utilizes ghostly children, who we are led to believe are her previous victims and who we hear laughing over the course of the film. In the context of the movie the Blair Witch has earned a legacy as a truly terrifying being. The film delves into her mythology and legacy which inspires the main characters to look for her. When she finally does start to haunt the protagonists she really doesn’t seem to do much on her own. In fact we don’t even see the results of her wrath, except for a dismembered tongue (shown above). While this does add to the realism of the film since the audience is as out of the loop as the main characters the downside is we don’t really get to see how truly threatening the witch is for ourselves. We don’t see her kill, we don’t see her face, and we don’t see her interact with the main characters in any way on screen. We do eventually get some neat insight into the witch in the direct sequel “Blair Witch”, but in the original film it’s more the idea of the witch that frightens us and not the witch herself in all her glory.
In “Paranormal Activity” though we see it all even if we don’t see the demon, which is named Toby in later installments. We’re shown what he does and we see his actions progress the longer he is in the home. We know he’s there and his actions are unpredictable leaving us wondering what his motives really are. We also see him interact with the characters directly. One famous example is he damaged a picture of Micah and Katie, specifically targeting Micah’s face. We also see him drag Katie out of bed and we see his shadow move through the home as well as his footsteps across the floor. We even see him possess Katie, something the Witch never does. We see so much more of what Toby is capable of and what he is willing to do to torture his targets. The Blair Witch seems to be driven more by revenge than anything else as her involvement in the story is assumed to be due to the trio disrupting what looks to be a ritual ground. Toby though…Toby seems to be having genuine fun torturing Micah and Katie. There’s no way for them to escape him, he’s much more hands on, and he comes off as a much more malicious and insidious being than the Blair Witch. While the witch certainly appears to be a threatening being you don’t want to mess this, Toby is more relentless in his terror making him, in my opinion, the more frightening and superior villain. Point goes to “Paranormal Activity”.
SCORE: “The Blair Witch Project” – 1 “Paranormal Activity” – 1
ROUND 3: THE ATMOSPHERE
For this next category it’s not just about the backdrop of the film but also how that scenery is used to convey a sense of terror and dread. Both films are unique from each other in this respect. “The Blair Witch Project” takes place in a larger setting in the wooded area of Black Hill Forest while “Paranormal Activity” takes place in the confines of a house. One puts characters out of their elements while the other puts its characters in a space where they should feel safe but they are actually in more danger than they could ever imagine. Which setting was best utilized? Let’s break it down.
With “The Blair Witch Project” everyone is afraid of getting lost in the woods. Throw in supernatural elements like a vengeful witch whose territory you’ve invaded and that drama is magnified even more. “The Blair Witch Project” adds another layer to this terror when the characters misplace their map leaving them unsure of where to go and appearing to be walking in circles. Everyone could put themselves in this situation and be terrified, but one downside is it’s not until the nighttime scenes where this is truly scary. In the day time you just get the sense of frustration rather than a sense of dread. Another point worth making is “The Blair Witch Project’s” setting makes it difficult to get our own sense of direction as the viewer. We don’t know where everyone or everything is in relation to each other which is a nice way of building on the fear of the unknown usually associated with getting lost in the woods. However, this is a naturally scary scenario simply by human nature. It doesn’t take much for this atmosphere to do its job no matter the story taking place which kind of gives “The Blair Witch Project’ an unfair advantage right from the start. We do get some awesome scenes, including the reveal of the ritual ground, but I’ll admit that the more inventive frights come from the witch herself and the climactic scene in the home of Rustin Parr. In fact the sequel, “Blair Witch”, made the forest scarier than the original film. All the same, while it might not be the most original backdrop for a horror film it’s hard to deny that “The Blair Witch Project” does make great use of a setting.
“Paranormal Activity” on the other hand takes a very different approach, confining all of the action to a single home rather than the expansive and already terrifying forest. What sets “Paranormal Activity” apart is that it’s not just a haunted house movie, but a haunted house film set in a home that wasn’t previously considered threatening. This could be anyone’s home and seeing a couple be attacked and tormented by an invisible being in a setting they shouldn’t have to fear becomes instantly relatable. While I can’t call it original or inventive director, writer and pretty much everything else Oren Peli uses the atmosphere perfectly showing times of peace and tranquility mixed with moments of uncomfortable suspense. We know where every room is in relation to the other rooms in the house and the confined space makes everything feel delightfully claustrophobic. It’s a genuinely terrifying concept to think that someone could be looking over your shoulder in the comfort of your own house and every scene we are looking for tiny details that show that even in times of joy this couple is not alone.
“The Blair Witch Project” deserves credit for using a classic setting well, but what makes “Paranormal Activity” so much more engaging is it feels like there is no escape or safety without the couple losing everything they own in the process and even then, nothing is guaranteed. “The Blair Witch Project” draws more fear from what we’re already afraid of as an established cliché. “Paranormal Activity” takes a clichéd backdrop and adds to it making it feel more grounded, more relatable and much more frightening. Point for this round goes to “Paranormal Activity”.
SCORE: “The Blair Witch Project” – 1 “Paranormal Activity” – 2
ROUND 4: FOUND FOOTAGE APPROACH
As a genre the found-footage approach can be tough to pull off and many imitators have stained the reputations of films like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” by turning this filmmaking approach into a gimmick. That said though these are two movies that HAVE perfected the approach, but which one utilizes the gimmick better? While “The Blair Witch Project” has the feel of a true story about a documentary gone bad and is more raw “Paranormal Activity” feels more polished as it’s justified through a couple trying to capture strange happenings for their own examination. Which approach is the best use of the found-footage concept though? Well you know the drill.
As I’ve already pointed out, in the case of “The Blair Witch Project” the filming style is incredible raw. We see all the action through the lens of a documentary crews’ cameras and it feels like something recorded from a cheaper device than the high powered cameras available even in the 90s. One of the most important aspects of a found-footage film is to make the experience feel realistic and “The Blair Witch Project” does just that with a production quality that doesn’t feel polished or clean. It feels like an unfinished film, like a home movie, and that’s how these products really should look if you’re going for authenticity. “The Blair Witch Project” stands out because it allows us to lose ourselves in the possibility that this was in fact something that really happened and the fact that these are filmmakers supposedly seeking to make a documentary justifies where they end up and why they end up with enough camera space to record days’ worth of material on their person. There’s not a lot of loopholes left open and the found-footage approach not only feels necessary, it feels natural which makes “Blair Witch’ that much more of an engrossing experience.
Looking at “Paranormal Activity” it’s a very polished film with great editing, smooth picture and movie-level quality but there lies one of its weaknesses compared to “The lair Witch Project”. It looks like a movie, it plays out like a movie and thus, as with my complaints when I talked about the protagonists, it feels more rehearsed. It doesn’t feel as raw or as real as “The Blair Witch Project” even if it does look better and it’s easier to watch when you consider aesthetic. This doesn’t make “Paranormal Activity” a bad movie. To some it actually probably makes this a more watchable film than “The Blair Witch Project”. It even makes the action a lot easier to experience because the camera is usually stationary or held more carefully. But it’s the chaos of those camera movements and the unpredictability of what shot is going to hit the screen next that makes “The Blair Witch Project” so intriguing. Not to mention the fact that “Paranormal Activity’s” setup is inferior as Micah buys a movie-quality camera to record what happens in their apartment at night which, when you really think about it, is a bit ridiculous without the suspension of disbelief. Both movies use the found-footage approach quite well in my opinion but as far as who did it better “Blair Witch” wins it all the way tying up the score for the final round.
SCORE: “The Blair Witch Project” – 2 “Paranormal Activity” – 2
FINAL ROUND: THE SCARE FACTOR
Both “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” aren’t exactly known as the most frightening movies in the world partially because a lot of the fear is derived from what you don’t see more than what you do and it takes patience to appreciate what these movies are trying to show. That said though to the right person both films can be very terrifying so for the final round to settle the tie (which I swear I didn’t plan) I decided to look at the most important aspect of any horror film in terms of audience pandering, the scare factor or which film is scarier than the other. Let’s settle this battle now.
“The Blair Witch Project” is not filled with jump scares or creepy imagery save for a few select moments, so much of the fear brought on from this film is isolated to the fear of the unknown. What we don’t see and our lack of understanding is what captures us here. We don’t get to see the witch or her apparently child-like sidekicks, but we hear them and we see evidence that they are there. The idea that this could have been a real story and that the actors had no idea what to expect actually bleeds off the screen and seeps into our own souls as we put ourselves in their shoes. Excellent pacing and a more grounded approach to filmmaking make “The Blair Witch Project” feel real and that’s why it scares us. A lot of films like this are not meant to draw cheep jump scares. They’re meant to make you feel afraid by reality and possibility. A slow burn results in a massive inferno of terror and using the found footage approach to drive that home was an excellent idea that reinforces every heart stopping realization and the genuine concern we feel for the well being of these characters.
But…”Paranormal Activity” takes it one step further. It has the same uncomfortable feel of “Blair Witch” in many respects, especially in regards to making us concerned about the couple, but its setting in a private home makes it all the more terrifying and the fact that it shows us more but not too much sends chills down our spines. It feels like we’re getting a look into a home we should not be privy to and every small sound, every creaking door and every booming footstep has us searching the background for a hint as to what’s going to happen next. There’s a reason this film became a phenomenon upon its release as people rushed to the theater hoping to be scared out of there minds by the unknown. What they got was a white knuckle experience that assaulted the senses and that same impact still rings true today. “Paranormal Activity” took what “The Blair Witch Project” started and built on it to become a perfect blend of pacing, jump scares, and sensory overload in all the right ways. Is it perfect? No. But even over ten years later this modern classic franchise starter is one of the most well balanced and legitimately frightening found-footage movies around. Even though “The Blair Witch Project” will always be considered more influential and respectable for its more grounded approach “Paranormal Activity” is more frightening and leaves a much bigger impact on viewers after the experience is over. The final point goes to “Paranormal Activity”.
SCORE: “The Blair Witch Project” – 2 “Paranormal Activity” – 3
WINNER: “PARANORMAL ACTIVITY”
So, the winner in the end is the more modern film “Paranormal Activity”. The legacy of “The Blair Witch Project” should not be ignored. It features a better cast and is actually a better example of the potential of the found-footage filming style. However, “Paranormal Activity” is a scarier film with a much better use of it’s confined setting and a much more memorable and effective villain despite not seeing either baddy in either film. Honestly if you’ve followed my blog from the beginning you may have been able to predict the winner of this fight from the start. After all, “Paranormal Activity” also edged out “The Blair Witch Project” in my very first post on Cinema Spotlight of the best found-footage movies which you can read here if you’d like. Regardless though both of these films are true greats that take different but similar approaches to a dying sub-genre. If you enjoy found-footage movies as much as I do these are two classics I suggest you really take the time to check out for yourselves.