Director: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Writer: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Producer: Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale
Stars: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams
Three young filmmakers become lost in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland while making a documentary about a legendary witch.
Few films polarize horror fans as much as “The Blair Witch Project.” When the groundswell of buzz made its way through Hollywood following the Sundance debut in 1999, more than one person who had seen a screener copy promised it would be the scariest movie I would ever see. Perhaps my expectation bar was set too high then, when I lined up outside of the Nuart theater for the first showing on opening day of the Los Angeles run (before the film opened nationwide). Even that early in the film’s debut, audiences were already splitting into two camps. I distinctly recall two clearly frightened girls in front of me saying “get me out of here” as soon as the credits rolled while I sat there still wondering what all the fuss was about.
In the “found footage” formula, a main objective is to establish a cast with which the audience can empathize. Blair Witch has a few brief bonding moments that include the sharing of scotch and an argument over a Gilligan’s Island moniker, but otherwise the characters are really not overly likeable. Mike is almost never portrayed as particularly friendly, and “annoying” is Heather’s most easily identifiable trait. Too often she repeats everything she says (“We’re outta here” would have been her personal record at five times in a row had it not been interspersed with a “Yes” between instances four and five). And she is a terrible documentarian to boot. Interviewees either cannot finish their sentences or cannot put two together without an interjection from Heather. Her disbelieving addition of “really?” after several revelations is particularly distracting.
As a movie about three people gradually descending into stir crazy madness while their situation grows more hopeless, “The Blair Witch Project” works. As a “scary movie,” the film is less successful. The underlying issue is that the scares are based on an inconsistent mythology to the point where something intended to be frightening plays more as confusing.
The actual legend of the Blair Witch is very cloudy. During the initial interviews with assorted townspeople and crackpots, we are presented with a smattering of seemingly unconnected tales.
Speaking about the glut of children laid to rest in the cemetery during the 1940’s, Heather notes, “no one in the town seems to recall anything unusual about this time.” This is about one minute before two different locals recall a hermit who killed seven children in his mountain home during that period. Seems pretty unusual to me. He is also reported to have murdered the children in pairs, as one was forced to stand in a corner while the other was killed first. Yet somehow he murdered an odd number of children.
In addition to the child-killing mass murderer, we also hear about a grey vapor rising out of the water, five men with strange carvings on their faces murdered at Coffin Rock, and separate accounts of the witch that include her being covered in horsehair and her feet never touching the ground. For some, it could be that this collective ambiguity aids in the depiction of the filmmakers’ growing desperation and sanity loss. Without clear answers, the imagination is left to run wild from fear of the unknown. But for someone trying to make sense of the entire affair and its purpose, the lack of a cohesive story is primarily frustrating.
These disjointed aspects of the legend make the story muddled, not mysterious. The history is not fleshed out or consistent enough to be truly frightening. Definitive answers are not required, but more clarity would have elevated scenes of sticks and rocks from being exactly that: scenes of sticks and rocks.
While not the first of its kind, “The Blair Witch Project” is the “found footage” figurehead by which all other films in the genre are inevitably compared. However, while it may be a gauge for the “found footage” formula and relative success of the resulting film, it should not be the genre’s benchmark for quality in execution.
Review Score: 50