"The Blair Witch Project"

We have nothing to fear but fear itself -- and fear, it turns out, is scarier than hell.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
July 13, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

A shadow creeping ominously into view through a motel room shower curtain. A
swimmer's legs dangling tantalizingly under the water as something big and
hungry glides purposefully toward them. A terrorized baby sitter learning
that the calls are coming from inside the house. And a close-up of a single
frightened, crying eye of a lost camper in her tent at night, her sobs
interrupted as she breathlessly whispers to the camera, "What was that?"

These are landmark moments in cinematic horror, the ones that stick in your
memory and haunt you long after the house lights go up, and they only come
along once in a generation. If you don't recognize the last one, it's
because it's from "The Blair Witch Project," the darling of
Sundance and Cannes that's already being buzzed as the scariest movie ever
made. That, of course, is debatable -- but the fact that a shoestring-budget
mockumentary with no name stars, no special effects, no rivers of bloody gore and
not even a musical score can be this spooky is a testament to the storytelling ability of the filmmakers, and
to their trust in the audience's imagination. It's been a long time since a movie did so
much by showing so little.

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The back story, outlined in the film's opening, is that three student
filmmakers went into the Maryland woods to make a documentary about the
mysterious, gruesome legacy of a legendary local witch and never
returned. A year later, their footage was found. What we see next is a
chronicle of the group's harrowing last days as they themselves filmed them, a kind of "Real
World" meets "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," with a splash of
"Deliverance." It's an ingenious device, one that efficiently and
economically exploits our cultural immersion in reality TV and
recalls our own amateurish and shaky home videos. It's at once familiar and
disquietingly surprising. In the 20 years since Michael Myers first donned a mask and heavily breathed his
way through "Halloween," the standard has been for horror movies to unfold
from the killers' perspective. But "The Blair Witch Project" finally turns the camera around
and forces us to see through the eyes of the victims. It's a far scarier
place to be.

Heather, Josh and Mike (in yet another authenticity twist, all three actors
perform under their real names here) rapidly devolve from a cocky trio of would-be auteurs into
three frayed, fearful individuals when they realize they are lost -- but not alone -- in the woods.
Mysterious piles of rocks appear in their paths. Strange voices seem to be
calling from points unknown. And signs of other unfriendly life become
more obvious with the passing of each desperate day. The
prologue of the film makes the characters' doom a fait accompli, and
this information gives "Blair Witch" a new kind of suspense. In conventional horror, we know
how things are going to happen (watch out for the guy with the burned
face and the razors for nails, dude); we just don't know to whom
they're going to happen. Here, we are fully aware that nobody -- not
even the plucky girl -- is coming back from that camping trip. The
suffocating terror, and the gloomy poignancy, is in waiting to see what's
going to keep them there forever.

The palpable sense of dread, which builds in a slow, steady crescendo throughout, is
exacerbated by the film's utter lack of cinematic foreshadowing -- there's no "here comes
the bad thing" music, no telltale establishing shots of a hiding figure that compel us to shout, "Don't go in
there!" at the screen. Instead, we have a one-way march toward the unknown,
a race to see what encroaches first: the elements, the enigmatic evil that
haunts the woods or the group's own increasing paranoia. It's fitting that "The Blair
Witch Project" should open the same week as Stanley Kubrick's final film, since it shares
something psychologically -- if not stylistically -- with "The Shining."
Both films explore the unnerving possibility that perhaps the worst thing
supernatural powers can do is to sit back and play with our heads, to let our
minds create a hell of their own. When Heather observes, "It's all around
us," she doesn't notice that "it" is very much inside them as well.

For a cinema viriti horror story to work, the cast has to make you
forget it's acting, a feat that Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua
Leonard
-- in particular Donahue -- accomplish with an eerie agility.
"Method" filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made "Blair
Witch" by having the cast go into the woods and camp for a week, giving
them only rudimentary information on what was going to happen each day. It's
a concept that makes Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" boot camp sound like Club Med, but the results speak
for themselves: What we see on the screen are three people who look
genuinely scared out of their minds, proving that fear isn't
manifested only in shrieking, slasher-flick bursts. Sure, Heather can scream like
a banshee, but she also shows the nuances of fear in subtler, more
unsettling ways.

In the soon-to-be-famous scene in the tent, the camera is
uncomfortably tight on her nose and right eye as she tries to calmly
apologize for everything that's occurred. Her voice quivers, her eyes leak
tears and she croaks out what she seems to truly believe is her final message ("I love you, Mom ...") as she helplessly waits for the horror to
escalate. And escalate it does, building to an excruciatingly slow
crescendo, and leading ultimately to the most memorably disturbing final image
in a movie since the 1988 Dutch thriller "The Vanishing."

"The Blair Witch Project" is not a perfect film, and there are times when the viewer may
ardently wish for less setup and quicker payoffs. And despite the
movie's realism, there are significant and frustrating holes in logic: Why do the
young makers of a documentary on the Blair Witch spend so little time actually talking
about her? Why does Heather pack a book called "How to Stay Alive in the Woods" and then never
use it? And why, even when they're running away in terror, do they take their cameras everywhere?

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Despite these occasional lapses, "The Blair Witch Project" still emerges as
a fascinating, unforgettable mystery. The film leaves
us, like the filmmakers, abandoned in the woods, with no one there to save
us. And Heather's terrified "What was that?" is up to us to answer.
Days after, you may still be replaying certain scenes in your head, puzzling over
their exact significance.

In what may be a first in cross-media storytelling, the movie's creators, sensing the intense curiosity it might provoke, have
offered some ingenious alternative sources of further information. There's a
spooky-in-its-own-right Web site
full of "evidence" from the case, and a Sci Fi network mockumentary on the
mockumentary that gives both the background of the legend and a postscript on the investigation of the
students' disappearance, with additional materials (including a comic book) to follow.

Even without the supplemental story lines, though, "The Blair Witch Project" stands on its own,
the most inventive and genuinely frightening horror movie to appear in years. "Scream" may
have revitalized the genre by giving it wry, self-referential wit, but
"Blair Witch" does it by proving that there's nothing scarier than looking
fear in the face. It is, quite simply, a movie you have to see, and
preferably with a friend. Because this is a film you're going to need to
talk about when it's over, and afterward you definitely won't want to walk home alone.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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