The Blair Witch Project
Rating -

Documentary/Horror (US); 1999; Rated R; 76 Minutes

Heather Donahue
Michael C. Williams
Joshua Leonard

Produced by Robin Cowie, Bob Eick, Kevin J. Foxe, Gregg Hale and Michael Monello; Directed and screenwritten by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary.

A year later their footage was found."

The words on screen which open "The Blair Witch Project" are somewhat manipulative, since this documentary of filmmakers disappearing in the woods is moreover mocked and staged. Haxan films, the responsible minds behind this Sundance Film Festival hit, have pulled out all the stops to convince the world that what they shall see is indeed fact, filmed in a style which dialogue is easily improvised, and situations are lifelike. There's a Sci-Fi channel exclusive telling of the "Curse of the Blair Witch," TV spots focusing in on vivid cries of terror, and even an official website with journals documenting these filmmakers' frightful journey (up to a point).

All of these efforts may seem somewhat ridiculous in convincing audiences that the movie is completely factual, but nevertheless they are needed, and appropriate, to help set up the movie itself. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, the directors, know for a fact that they have to convince us these things are genuine in order for them to scare us. And with everything they have done in the months leading up to the nationwide release, people will walk into the theater convinced that they are watching something authentic. That factor alone might scare them more than what they actually see on screen.

Oh, but that doesn't mean what happens on screen isn't horrifying. Most of the events chronicled in this "lost footage" are pretty creepy, as if we were the ones in the woods watching them happen. Slime appears on backpacks, children laughter is heard at a distance, tints shake, maps are lost, and sanity is doomed; meanwhile, the camera is rolling, capturing all these things as they unfold. There is something in the power of suggestion that makes "The Blair Witch Project" so hair-rasing and disturbing. The film is a redefining moment in the horror genre, the first since "The Exorcist" that has generated enough courage to challenge what we regard as 'terrifying.'

The success of the film is not of blood, gore, or special effects, but of the suggestion that something evil and supernatural occupies the dark shadows, and we can easily be terrified of them without ever having to see them. By using hand-held cameras and invigorating impromptu, there is a feeling of real life that accompanies these people on their journey. The movie is about three young film students who are on location in Burkittsville, Maryland, to explore the essence of the years-old legend of the infamous Blair Witch, who went into the woods, continuously haunted them, and killed those who crept into her lair.

The tales from those in town feature descriptions of brutal child murders in the 1940s, and a woman floating in air covered head-to-toe with thick hair. These filmmakers have their minds so preoccupied with the old stories surrounding the Blair Witch that their own journey into the woods becomes disoriented, sometimes having them hike in circles. It all becomes considerably sad, as one of the filmmakers disappears without a trace, and the next day a bundle of sticks is found, with his teeth, pulled from the jaw line, wrapped up in cloth. Eventually these events force the main filmmaker, Heather Donahue, to film her own apology, confessing that everything that has happened is her fault. And then there's the ending, which is in itself so horrifying that I would compare it to the shower scene of "Psycho," or the vomiting scene of "The Exorcist." Such an ending does not deserve to be revealed.

Even though it did not win any awards at Sundance, the film generated remarkable interest with crowds at midnight screenings, making it the biggest hit of the whole festival. Response since then has been overwhelmingly positive, although a few of my online colleagues (Jeffrey Huston, Harvey Karten and Chuck Schwartz) have been part of an opposing influence on the picture's popularity. Will it be remembered as one of the great films of the horror genre though? Probably not. Aside from the chills it sends down your spine, the film takes quite awhile to get off the ground. The first few minutes, in which the filmmakers stroll into town interviewing others, are establishing but not always explored with depth, and the camera shots in the woods are sometimes too jumbled to tell what is really going on.

Still, there is no ignoring the movie's overall impact. In contriving a story of myth and the supernatural, directors Myrick and Sánchez easily create one of the most atmospheric and tense movies of the year. Who would have thought that old stories about witchcraft, haunted houses and the woods at night would once again provoke fear in moviegoers? Looks like witches in the woods are scarier than killers in hockey masks.

© 1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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