A big studio pours millions of dollars into a high-tech haunted-house extravaganza and it dies in a matter of days. A few independents go out in the woods with their hand-held cameras and come out with a box-office bonanza. How can this be?
"The Blair Witch Project" is notable for a number of reasons: First, it is very eerie, sometimes creepy, and unpredictably frustrating. Second, compared to most other horror films, it is innovative and clever. Third, it was made on a shoestring and returned a mint in profits. Fourth, it used the Internet to fabulous promotional effect. Fifth, it has become more of a phenomenon than a conventional viewing experience. Sixth, it leaves a lot more to the imagination than most other fright flicks. And last, due to the intense hype that preceded it and the immense critical acclaim it received upon its release, audiences may expect too much in the way of fright and be disappointed.
By now everyone knows the movie's gimmick, although before it opened people weren't too sure. "In October of 1994," reads the prologue, "three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary... A year later their footage was found." The "documentary" was a college project about a local legendary figure known as the Blair Witch. Supposedly, the three young filmmakers died mysteriously in the woods while trying to complete the assignment, and their bodies were never found.
Of course, it is all fiction. The film is a total fabrication, but it was made and promoted so ingeniously that many people all over the world thought it was real. The folks who made the film, writer/directors Daneil Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, and others, followed their actors through the woods purposely disorienting them and encouraging them to improvise their lines. It was effective in creating a believable verisimilitude. Whether or not the idea of this "mockumentary," as it has been called, is entirely original (there are those who point out that "The Blair Witch Project" is a blatant rip-off of another independent film made just before it), "Blair Witch" was advanced by its creators in a most original way, through a perfectly legitimate-looking Web site purporting the film's authenticity and attracting a multitude of true believers. There you have it--instant notoriety.
The three students are played by Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard. To maintain the realism of the story, those are also their names in the film. In the first thirty minutes or so, they collect data about the witch myth and interview town residents, a part of the film that establishes the story's credibility but moves by very slowly. In the next segment, the filmmakers, lead by Ms. Donahue, head into the woods to do some location shooting. They plan to spend only a couple of days but soon get lost. Before long they're bickering, arguing, and outright fighting with one another.
Donahue's role as the project manager, a woman with two male assistants and an obsessive need to get everything on film, creates friction. By this time, the viewer may find their constant barrage of profanity becoming tiresome and Ms. Donahue's voice getting more than a bit grating. It is only in the final half of the film that the trio begin to hear strange noises in the forest at night and find structures like unexplainable rock piles around their tent and cabalistic totems in the trees. It this moment to which the film has been leading all along. The filmmakers are tired, they're hungry, they're angry, and they're hopelessly lost; now they realize they are also being haunted and probably stalked by some unknown presence. And there is no way out. The tension mounts and things finally begin to get chilling. But nothing is ever shown. It is a building of mood, and it is what the viewer imagines is happening that create the chills.
I must admit, however, that I am probably the only reviewer in the country who did not feel threatened or scared by any of it. I was intrigued, fascinated, bewitched, and entertained but not scared. I never felt the suspense or terror I did the first time I saw Robert Wise's "The Haunting" (1963) or Ridley Scott's "Alien." Maybe "Blair Witch" is the kind of film that has to be seen in a theater, but I am reviewing the DVD, after all. I watched it with my wife late one night in a closed, darkened, and dead-silent room. No interruptions. No distractions. Still, nothing. No scares. I guess the ending was a case of too little, too late. Everyone's reaction will be different, naturally; and I can readily understand why some people, more willing than I to suspend their disbelief, would be frightened out of their wits by the goings on.
Regarding the technical merits of the disc, the DVD's image and sound quality are moot. The movie is supposed to look grainy, lined, and jerky, as if it were made by a group of amateurs with a camcorder. In this regard it succeeds. In fact, it succeeds too well, the constant motion of the camera verging on the point of inducing seasickness in the viewer. Tape, DVD, or broadcast TV, it makes no difference; the image looks like what it is, a 1.33:1 standard-frame home movie. Does DVD make the grain look any better, any more clear? Who knows and who cares.
Ditto the sound. It's Dolby Surround, but any critical comments need only apply to the end-credits music, which is appropriately spooky with its added sense of dimensionality. The rest of the film's audio is, for all intents and purposes, monaural, except for some occasional forest murmurs.
The real highlight of the disc for me was the pseudo documentary that accompanies the main film. It's a fake documentary about a fake documentary. Wonderful stuff! Patterned after an A&E type TV special, it's called "The Curse of the Blair Witch" and lasts about forty minutes. It recounts the tale of Elly (or Elle) Kedwood, a woman who arrived in the American colonies in 1769, was executed as a witch, and then came back to kill half the village, continuing to reappear every fifty years or so to do more dastardly deeds. It's all invention, to be sure, but it's presented just as convincingly as the movie itself, and it probably cost more to produce than the movie itself! In addition, the disc contains a chronological text version of the Blair mythology and a few minutes of additional footage, plus cast and crew information, production notes, scene access, and trailers. If one has a DVD-ROM player, one can also access a map of the vicinity and excerpts from a dossier and comic book. A "Blair Witch" comic book? I'm leading a sheltered life.
"The Blair Witch Project" is most certainly a non-traditional horror movie. Its terror is entirely in the eye of the beholder. The audience is fearful not of what they actually see but of what they think is happening and what they believe the film's characters are feeling. Approached as something unconventional, the film can reward viewers with unexpected pleasures and several uneasy moments. Otherwise....