movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 1999 Artisan Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.)

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The  Blair Witch Project

"I'm scared to close my eyes. I'm scared to open them."

--Heather Donahue, The Blair Witch Project

Most horror movies nowadays are made by filmmakers enamored with special effects. Look no further than this summer's The Haunting for an example. It's chockfull of special effects. Never mind that effects are completely superfluous to Shirley Jackson's excellent novel, The Haunting of Hill House, upon which that movie is based.

Taking a completely opposite and minimalist approach is The Blair Witch Project--a movie that shows how genuinely useless most special effects are. The real core of filmmaking is storytelling and how the motion picture camera can be used to reveal a story through startling images and lucid characterizations. Deprived of special effects through its ultra low budget, The Blair With Project instead focuses upon how confusion and desperation, under the right circumstances, can quickly turn into abject horror.

The Blair Witch Project bears some similarity to Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, just take away any overt intimations of a monster (as in that movie's first-person perspective shaky-cam sequences where the camera skittered across swamps and through scrub brush). While The Blair Witch Project does indeed contain several hints that something is in the forest, pursuing and taunting the movie's central characters, no clues provide conclusive evidence. As a result, the horror created in The Blair Witch Project resides mostly in the minds of its characters, borne of their desperation after becoming lost in the woods.

After lacing their minds with background information about "the Blair Witch" and interviewing local people familiar with the legend, three young filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard) set off into the Black Hills Forest of Maryland, searching for the setting where several murders had taken place. However, come night fall, they haven't found their way back out of the woods. With a map they don't know how to read and with their squabbling threatening to rip the group apart, the young filmmaking crew must set up camp. They're prepared. They have a tent and camping supplies, yet they want no part of the woods after dark.

Night brings them few moments of relaxation. Cracking noises that reverberate through the woods soon wake them. Someone or something is out there. Dawn brings relief, but now the filmmakers discover that the paths they choose to take all fail to return them to their car. One night in the forest becomes two, which turns into three, which

A year later, their documentary film footage was found buried beneath a cabin in the woods. The movie itself is composed of that footage, which has been pieced together by Haxan Films.

This amazingly simple premise is enriched several fold by fascinating bits of Blair Witch mythology. The filmmakers of Haxan Films (which indeed is the name of the company that produced this movie) have envisioned a complex, compelling background story. This story involves generations-old "artifacts"--such as the only surviving copy of an 1809 book called "The Blair Witch Cult." In addition, many of the inhabitants of nearby Burkittsville, Maryland know the legend. Parents would tell the story of the witch in order to get kids in bed early. The legend involves missing children, a disemboweled searching party, and ritualistic murders. These bits of legend present a tantalizing scenario rife with riddles and mysteries.

Ultimately written, directed, and edited by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, The Blair Witch Project presents us with an astonishingly plausible situation. The actors themselves manned the cameras as they moved from pre-determined point to pre-determined point, encountering planted actors with whom they played out improvisational scenes. And these scenes are remarkably believable. The movie sucks you into its world, allowing you to become familiar with the leading characters: Heather Donahue is the group's leader, Michael Williams in the sound man, and Joshua Leonard works the 16mm camera. Much of the movie is comprised of footage from Heather's High-8 video recorder, which she used virtually non-stop once the expedition started. Her camera documents the growing rifts between the filmmakers as their confusion turns into anger.

My only complaint with The Blair Witch Project is the dialogue sequences frequently dissolve into little more than shouting matches once the documentary filmmakers become lost in the woods. This is one of the hallmarks of young actors--an over-reliance upon shouting to make a point. As a result, the movie occasionally becomes somewhat irritating. One of the three actors, Michael Williams, starts off following the others by screaming his lines, but eventually he backs away and his voice becomes soft. All the screaming has left him visibly shaken. Now, he wants to do whatever he can to help out. This is an intriguing turn of events and it reveals Williams as the most fully developed character of the trio.

The Blair Witch Project is an amazing movie. The horror gradually increases until by the end it is almost unbearable. Filmmakers Sanchez and Myrick understand that horror relies not so much upon what we see as what we think we might see. Horror relies more upon the anticipation of horror than it does upon carnage. The horror in The Blair Witch Project remains in our heads, like a nightmare continuing to haunt our waking hours.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]