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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Blair Witch Project (review)

Noises in the Night

I can absolutely guarantee you that at this very moment, there are at least ten pitches being hurled at Hollywood execs that start out: “Okay, it’s a mock documentary. There’s these kids, see…” Half a dozen of these pitches will be purchased, script unseen, and rushed into production for release next summer, and all of the finished films will suck. Big time.

For the glut of Summer 2000 bombs, we can blame Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez for being creative and inventive enough to knock Hollywood on its ass this summer with The Blair Witch Project, any deficiencies in which are more than amply made up for by its daring.
Myrick and Sánchez are credited with “writing and directing” Blair Witch, but here is the mostly improvised script in a nutshell:

  • “We’re NOT lost. I know EXACTLY where we are.”
  • “Oh, shit! Oh, SHIT!”
  • “What the hell is that? What the HELL is that?”
  • “Josh! Josh! JOSH!”
  • “Oh my God! OH MY GOD!”
  • “Mike! Mike! MIKE!”

The direction consists of the film’s three young stars — Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard, all of them fabulous — goofing around with a camcorder and a 16mm camera.

What Myrick and Sánchez should be credited for is inventing a backstory for their movie that is at once frightening enough to be so intriguing and banal enough to be so believable that many moviegoers are apparently convinced that every scrap of it is true.

No, there is no legend of the Blair witch reaching back to colonial times. Seven kids were not mysteriously murdered in the 1970s. Three young filmmakers did not go into the Maryland woods in October 1994 to shoot a documentary on the Blair witch, they did not disappear, and their footage was not found a year later. The small town of Burkittsville — which does exist — was not formerly called Blair, and the nice, real people of Burkittsville are getting awfully tired of all the Goth Blairies (or whatever Blair Witch fans are calling themselves) hanging around and stomping through their woods.

Myrick and Sánchez made it all up. But the casual movie fan must be forgiven for being suckered in, because the creators have done their damnedest to make it all look real, from naming their characters after the actors to plastering MISSING posters with the faces of Heather, Mike, and Josh across many cities. Myrick and Sánchez must also be credited with making the drawbacks of ultralow-budget filmmaking (they spent a paltry $25,000 on this movie, which makes it sound like Dr. Evil was their producer) work for them instead of against them: The cheapie video and film stock only help in fostering the illusion of reality, and The Blair Witch Project works not because of what’s on the screen — no gore, no expensive special effects — but what isn’t.

Ultimately, it’s all in service of a good story (Note to Hollywood: Story. Story! STORY!). Heather, the director of the putative documentary, leads Mike, the sound guy, and Josh, 16mm cameraman, into the Maryland woods in search of background on the Blair witch legend. Heather’s camcorder documents the cheerful beginning to their adventure, as they shop for juice and marshmallows for their weekend camping trip. They talk to locals in Burkittsville, who tell of the legends of the witch and the haunted woods. When they eventually hike in those supposedly haunted woods, Heather just wants to read some spooky stories into the camera and get some shots of a mysterious cemetery before they head out again. But she accidentally leads them astray as they search for the cemetery, and they get lost. Initially skeptical about the actual existence of a witch or indeed anything scary in the woods, they all start to change their minds when weird things begin to happen and something terrifying begins to stalk them.

What makes The Blair Witch Project so creepily effective is that Myrick and Sánchez know that we’ll all still react to the stuff that scared the bejesus out of us as kids — the dark, noises in the night, shadows flitting by out of the corners of our eyes. We scared ourselves silly with stories about that patch of woods behind the spooky empty house down the street that we just knew was haunted, and Blair Witch sends you right back into that 10-year-old state of mind. (Well, most of us will react this way. Some folks just plain hate this film.)

If you liked being scared like that as a kid, you’ll get a big kick out of The Blair Witch Project. Fair warning: the final image will haunt you for days after you leave the theater. I’m still shivering.

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viewed at a public multiplex screening

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