Bright Lights Film Journal

Open Water, Open Woods: The Camera as Conflict in Horror Films

Let’s get lost

They say smell is the strongest link to memory. Monks burn incense to stimulate a return to a former state of deepest meditation where the same incense burned before. Anxiety, in the same way, plunges us into the past. Having once been lost in the wilderness for two days, my experience when watching The Blair Witch Project was all too familiar. Blair Witch was, after all, a film not obsessed with the exploration of the supernatural or murder, but with the anxiety of being lost. Open Water drops a young couple in the center of a tropical diving expedition gone bad. While watching the DV images of Chris Kentis’ aquatic hell — the lens peering above and below the water’s surface, around the suspended divers, toward the horizon, searching desperately for a point of reference — I found myself lost and hunted once again in the Maine woods of The Blair Witch Project.

These filmmakers knew (as Hitchcock knew) the potential of the “unseen” in horror films; the cinematic twist, in Open Water and The Blair Witch Project, comes by way of their documentary style. The audience is used to trusting the documentary camera to inform, however, in these films, the camera betrays us. The minimal perspective of Blair Witch — whether fixed tightly on the despairing characters or tunneling us through total darkness lead by a single beam of light — manipulates our fear with its inability to take in information. Although not verite, Open Water presents the same conflict — what we see isn’t enough to make sense of the world — our anxiety increases. At times the image is awash in sensory deprivation — underwater, the characters struggle to see their injuries and the causes of them, while above the surface, the undulating sea green and glare consume all distance and space. Can they actually swim to a boat on the horizon? In both films, in the deep woods or in the middle of the ocean, the camera was as useless to the audience as the character’s senses — sight, sound, and direction are either absent or altered into oblivion.

The young film student in Blair Witch, in denial of their situation, insists that, “no one can get lost in America.” In a similar denouncing of the greater forces at play, the abandoned couple, floating helplessly within the frame, presumes that human control of nature will inevitably deliver them from her clutches. The camera, like the human psyche, has a way of transforming vast domains (the wilderness, the sea) into a claustrophobic nightmare; the mind, when overwhelmed by expanse, collapses inward. The camera of Open Water also mirrors our imagination — dipping briefly, obscurely, beneath the surface, tantalized by the horror beneath; the same impulse driving the young filmmaker in Blair Witch, who, in relentless pursuit of horror, is unwilling to stop recording her own demise.

Truffaut described Hitchcock’s Rear Window as the perfect metaphor of the cinema — we are all bound to Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair and have no choice but to sit and watch events unfold. Open Water pays homage to the idea that the “unseen” is a technique that hasn’t aged. In the early years of film, when audiences first looked down the barrel of a firing gun, they ducked. Unlike the rational mind, which continually adapts to distress by corralling the sensory stimuli into a manageable state, the fragile imagination is always left swimming, naked and alone in a sea of possibility. Pushed toward fate by the camera, we succumb, like the surviving half of the doomed, floating couple, who tosses her gear and submerges herself — the camera’s mercy killing.