The Blair Witch Project (1999)

14 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s one thing for a thriller/horror film to claim that it’s based on a true story. It’s quite another to make us believe that statement. You know how Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio play frightened people into believing something terrible was really happening? How can you transfer that same kind of reaction to film? I mean, let’s face it—whenever we see that a narrative thriller, especially a ridiculous-sounding one, is captioned “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events,” we roll our eyes in disbelief. How can a film be so effective by introducing itself with a disclaimer that it was based on true events, and then making us start to believe it?

“The Blair Witch Project” provides a successful answer to that query. It opens with the ominous statement, “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.” From then on, the entire film is presented as home-video camera footage, in chronological order as if we’re seeing actual found footage leading up to something horrible for three characters who act and feel like real people.

This is great. I knew that “The Blair Witch Project” was fictional, but it’s such a harrowing experience that it manages to take the audience off guard. I know it took me off guard quite a few times. The illusion that this is a documentary-in-the-making is consistently applicable. With this unusual way of showing the film’s story, this is a brilliantly effective horror film and a prime example of independent filmmakers taking advantage of a miniscule budget.

The footage in the film was shot with two cameras—a color video handheld camcorder and a 16-mm. black-and-white camera. The former is used by aspiring director Heather (Heather Donahue) to document the making of her documentary in production, using the latter. With the aid of cameraman Josh (Joshua Leonard) and soundman Mike (Michael Williams), Heather decides to make a documentary about the mythical, legendary Blair Witch, said to haunt the woods near small town Burkittsville, Maryland. All three pack camping gear and prepare for hiking and sleeping in tents in the woods.

We first see them goofing around like normal college students. They playfully make fun of each other, mug for the camera, and joke around, while also filming the opening scene (at a cemetery, where Heather delivers the opening monologue, telling part of the supernatural legend) and interviewing the townspeople who state what they heard about the Blair Witch, whether they believe it or not—one of which happens to believe she had an encounter with the witch. Then it’s off to the forest, where they explore where the legend supposedly takes place. It’s here where a seemingly planned trip to make a film is surely damaged once the three become lost.

There’s most likely something supernatural occurring here, as many clues are left for the three characters to discover, including strange piles of rocks and creepy stick figures hanging from trees. And let’s not forget something going bump in the night, like distant noises and the tent shaking. But what really makes the terror in “The Blair Witch Project” so effective is that it gives an intentionally disorganized production setup that really gives us the feeling of being there with the people that this is happening to. On top of that, the film never shows the monster. This is one of the most successful of thrillers, particularly those based upon ghost stories—our imagination is more creative than anything else. It’s what we don’t see that scares us. (See 1963’s “The Haunting” as another example.) Sounds, darkness, or both can become effective elements in horror. We’re all afraid of things we can’t see because we don’t want to see them. Say, for example, you’re alone in the dark and you suddenly hear some sort of noise. You’re immediately scared and you wonder if you really want to know what’s out there, if anything. “The Blair Witch Project” taps into our fear of everyday things such as darkness, wildlife, and lack of direction. It uses this fear to its advantage. Also, because you don’t see a lot of the action and you’re stuck with growing fear of the unknown, “The Blair Witch Project” can be seen as a psychological thriller rather than just a ghost story.

The acting is excellent. Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard were all unknown actors who also used their real names to add to the illusion that the film was real, and also improvised quite a lot to make lines seem more natural. (I even read somewhere that at the film’s premiere, there were “missing” posters for all three actors, “presumed dead.”) The effect works. I cared very much for what was happening to these three and was worried for them, since I knew that they weren’t going to make it out of this terrifying situation they brought themselves into. In particular, Heather Donahue delivers a heartbreaking monologue to the camera in one of the final scenes, stating with quivering fear that she apologizes to the families of her companions for bringing them out into the place where they’ll all probably die. That scene is extraordinarily acted.

“The Blair Witch Project” is a nearly perfect horror film, but I have to wonder if anyone really would leave the camera on for so long after everything that has been experienced. But then again, I am a filmmaker as well and if I knew that something strange was going to happen, even something potentially life-threatening, I’d probably want to keep rolling in order to let people what happened. So if I’m not going to pick on that very much, I should also mention that while the film is an hour and twenty minutes, I have to admit that the pacing can be very awkward, especially in the setup leading up to the middle part of the film which at times seems pretty slow-moving.

But for the most part, “The Blair Witch Project” is a truly scary experience that shows just how much of an impact a shoestring-budget film can bring to an audience. My best piece of advice: don’t see this film right before an overnight camping trip in the woods.

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