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The Blair Witch Project

Review by David Luty
Posted 16 July 1999

  Written and Directed by
Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick

Starring Heather Donahue,
Michel Williams, and Joshua Leonard

"On October 21, 1994, three young filmmakers, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams hiked into the Black Hills of Maryland to shoot a documentary film on a local legend called "The Blair Witch" and were never seen or heard from again."

"One year later, their footage was found."

Anyone who's spent time out in the woods with friends, at night, knows that what makes campfire stories so unsettlingly creepy has much less to do with the content of the tale than it does with the campfire itself. It is the setting that matters, it is being out in the woods alone, in the dark, where every creaking branch, every small animal's leaf-crushing footstep, every whistling breath of wind hits your senses with the heightened force that comes from just having been reminded you how vulnerable, helpless, and isolated you actually are. Naturally, movies aren't ideally suited to recreating this sense of dread -- it's difficult to attack an audience in this way when they're sitting in plush chairs surrounded by a group of folks munching on their favorite theater snacks. It's also difficult to put audiences in that frame of mind when the story is populated with recognizable stars, artificial lighting, flamboyant music, and other devices that serve to comfortably remind the viewers that all they're really experiencing is light flickering onto a flat screen.

The Blair Witch Project offers no such safety nets. It dedicates itself, with every fiber of its being, to convincing you that it is most definitely not a movie, at all. That what you are watching is the real, first-person film and videotape footage recovered from these three twenty-something filmmakers who started shooting a documentary, got lost in the deep forest, and came across something unfathomably frightening. What makes the film such a stunning success is that whether you think you're watching reality or staged reality, its knock-out premise is executed so thoroughly well, with such naturalistic conviction, that it effectively removes you from the creature comforts of conventional movie-watching and puts you around the campfire, only to snuff out the flame and leave you in the deeply frightening dark.

Before the darkness, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams (played by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams) gather together their camping and film gear and make their way to Burkitsville (formerly Blair), Maryland, to begin their documentary film on the myth, or reality, of the Blair Witch. They interview disbelieving and believing townspeople, some of whom know the old folktales about the murderous witch, and then trek into the woods to film some of the locations and landmarks that make up the legend. Never once wavering from the premise, what we see at all times is the handheld footage shot from the two cameras this trio carries (someone has obviously edited the footage from the two cameras together after it was recovered from the woods). Heather is the producer, who directs the crew and carries around a small Hi-8 video camera to shoot behind the scenes, Michael is the cameraman, who shoots the black and white 16mm film footage that will make up the documentary, and Josh is the sound man.

During the more playful, relaxed moments, The Blair Witch Project has a similar feel and texture as MTV's The Real World, but Blair feels truer. These three actors are so impressively at ease being natural that they are easily more convincing than the "real" people who get the air of trumped up self-importance that comes from having cameras recording their day to day existence. Additionally, everything we see here is through the eyes of one of the three main characters, whichever one is operating a camera at a given point in time. This is the key to the experience of The Blair Witch Project, with a strong underline on "experience." Because we are always seeing things from a first-person point of view, we become intimately connected to the experiences of the characters. We see things through their eyes. We walk their steps. We run their flights from danger. We feel their fear. As their (our) lost trek through the seemingly endless woods brings them (us) closer to danger, the three characters go through a slow, gradual, and very convincing psychological breakdown, and the film comes up with an intriguing, effective way of justifying its most potentially implausible element. Why do they keep shooting? Why, when they get to the point of fearing for their lives, do they continue to hold the camera to their face and look at the world through an eyepiece? We already know why. It's a buffer from the reality, from their fear. It's to possibly preserve that part of their consciousness that can remind them, during the darkest moments, that it's only a movie. Think it loud enough and often enough while you watch The Blair Witch Project, and you just might be able to remind yourself of that as well.

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