Smart, low-budget and appealingly ragtag, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project is something I’ve been looking for for 20 years: a horror film that doesn’t depend on ostentatious gore or special effects. Relying on several unusual strategies for fright, it’s one of those films you’re sure to enjoy more the less you know about it in advance, so consider this fair warning to set aside this review—and all others—till after you’ve seen it.
When I first encountered the film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I had the impression that much of the large audience, which was composed mostly of young French filmgoers rather than critics, was in just the right state of credulous ignorance. That is, they took Blair Witch for what its opening titles say it is: an assembly of footage left behind by three young filmmakers who disappeared in rural Maryland in 1994 while shooting a documentary about a folkoric figure called the Blair Witch. Of course, the film is actually fictional, but for enjoyment’s sake you’re best thinking of it as real, and one of its chief achievements lies in making that creepily easy to do—even if you’re as clued in as most people will be by the time press reports and buzz reach their saturation points, the movie seduces you into at least a partial suspension of disbelief.
Mostly, that’s due to its pseudo-verite premise. Even people who haven’t a clue as to the difference between Hi-8 and Super-16 these days tend to know the difference between real and fake when it comes to documentaries, yet the most sophisticated and technically aware viewers are susceptible to the subliminal pull of formats that whisper “reality.” In this sense, Blair Witch marks one of the most clever uses of the faux-documentary approach that has had a sporadic commercial presence since the success of 1984’s Spinal Tap: Not only does the film adroitly play on the credence we give footage that has a documentary-like appearance, it also jibes with our erroneous sense of controlling reality by controlling representations of it. You might say, in the latter regard, that it’s a cheeky rebuke to the idiocies of social-constructionist theory: In its universe, the people with the cameras, the books and the controlling narrative aren’t the ones who rule—they’re the ones who’re lulled toward their doom because they think they do.
The tale’s three protagonists, though, are unlikely representatives of technological arrogance. In fact, they’re unlikely as anything but ordinary, twentysomething film-geek slackers, which makes them perfect for their roles here. Heather (Heather Donahue) is the one making the film, for which she’s signed on two helpers: Josh (Joshua Leonard), a blond hippie-collegiate type, wields a rented 16 mm camera; Mike (Michael Williams), a standard-issue sound guy, carries a portable DAT recorder. Heather has a Hi-8 video camera—for making a “making of” movie of her own doc—and Blair Witch intercuts her color footage and Josh’s black-and-white.
We’re never told exactly why Heather is making her documentary, but a school project would be a good guess. We’re also not told the relations between the characters before the story, but it seems that Heather and Josh know each other somewhat while Mike is a technoid for hire. Blair Witch opens with Heather and Josh cranking up their cameras before going to pick up Mike (who lives at home; he yells goodbye to his mom as he leaves). The three then repair to a supermarket and merrily load up on marshmallows and other supplies suitable for a couple of days in the woods.
The setting is Maryland and the trio’s first stop is the small town of Burkittsville, formerly known as Blair and the source of the Blair Witch legend. What is the Blair Witch legend? Well, it’s interesting that the film doesn’t make that overwhelmingly clear. (If you’re interested in knowing the details, check out the website the Blair Witch gang has used, very successfully thus far, to promote their movie: www.blairwitch.com.) It seems to have started back in the late 18th century with the disappearance of seven children, for which a local woman was blamed. A book published in the early 19th century kept the story alive and other nefarious things kept happening, right down to the 1940s when a man who killed and disemboweled several children claimed he was doing it at the bidding of an old woman’s ghost. Might that ghost still walk?
Heather and crew start off by interviewing local residents, all of whom seem to know of the legend even if their comments, a bit confusingly, touch on different aspects of its long history. (These interviews may seem like basic scene-setting, but you should pay close attention: One of them contains information that’s crucial to understanding the film’s ending.) Afterward, in search of other, more remote geographic points associated with the tale, the three filmmakers park Josh’s car on a rural road,
hoist their backpacks and equipment and head off into the woods.
“And they were never heard from again…” Which gives the film, from then on, the chilly allure of a memento mori, home-movie style. For a couple of days, the three wander in the woods, taking in the little there is to be seen. There are fart jokes in the tent at night; nothing weirder. Then they begin to glom on to the reality that they’re lost. Heather thinks she knows where they are, via their compass and map, but it becomes apparent that she doesn’t. Another night passes. Then another. They keep walking. Nerves get frayed, angry accusations start being hurled. The guys are especially pissed at Heather when she keeps filming during the increasingly testy discussions of their predicament.
The first tangible weirdness takes the form of little piles of rocks that appear outside their tent one morning. Did they not notice them as they were setting up the tent the night before? How is that possible? Then come the strange sounds outside the tent at night. And then, more dramatically, the place where they find large, totem-like figures suspended in the trees. “No redneck is this creative,” says one of the guys, stunned at the dawning possibility that there’s something—someone—very warped out there, toying malevolently with three would-be documentarians.
Like other good faux-documentaries, Blair Witch cannily integrates improvised acting into a scripted framework. The film’s directors reportedly even sent the three cast members off on their own in the woods, with decreasing food supplies and only sporadic contact with the actual crew, in order to approximate the conditions of their fictional ordeal. Whatever the technique, it worked. The film’s progress makes it seem like the characters are really getting hungrier, dirtier and—especially—edgier with each passing day. Near the end, their hair-trigger hysteria feels very like the actual thing. Of course the actors also deserve credit here, too. Perfectly cast, they seem so much like the real articles that it’s hard to think of them as anything but these lost and eventually very scared kids.
The film’s method of shooting adds to its insinuating effect. If the use of a documentary style mainly aims at eliciting our suspension of disbelief, it also has its own offbeat expressiveness. Heather’s material, like much that’s shot by camcorders, is very loose and fluid, with framing that varies constantly and spontaneously. Sometimes the camera’s pointing at the person she’s talking to, sometimes it’s panning around fitfully, sometimes it’s pointed at her boots. Besides making the viewer more dependent than usual on sound for basic information (its creative and very subtle use of sound is one of the film’s most ingenious aspects), this gives the camerawork a steadily mounting emotional force that pays off in the final reel, when the frenzied images rocket toward an almost-beautiful abstraction even as they unmistakably convey the terror of the people running the cameras.
I suppose the film could be criticized for its plotting, in the sense that more twists and turns and strange incidents could have been packed into its 90 minutes and thereby made for a more thoroughly gripping package. As it is, there are moments when it’s possible to grow bored and reflect that the story’s a bit more threadbare than need be. But the filmmakers’ credo seems to be less-is-more, and if this is the price, I’m happy to pay it. One of the things that’s so refreshing about Blair Witch, after all, is it that avoids so much of what you would expect, and that means even if you’re expecting a quirkily unconventional horror film about glib twentysomethings.
For instance, besides brief nods to Gilligan’s Island and The Wizard of Oz, its dialogue has virtually none of the pop-culture referencing that’s become a cliched crutch for screenwriters lately. Likewise, the characters don’t go off on tangents about their own histories or scary things they’ve read or even the Blair Witch. Everything remains very focused on the here and now: what’s this thing, where’s the map, how do we get out of here. Likewise, the whole issue of a woman being in control of the project is a huge, fascinating part of the story’s subtext, yet it’s neither stressed nor overworked.
For leaving so much to the viewer’s imagination and intelligence, the film deserves some kind of award (which won’t, perhaps, take the form of a huge box office: This is one of those films that make “cult favorite” an honorable term). We can only hope
that its example will be emulated. With late-70s fright fests like Carrie and Halloween (if any single film changed the genre, it was probably this one), the horror film seemed to lose the adult sophistication and exquisite suggestiveness it had attained in films like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and Robert Wise’s The Haunting (the ill-omened remake of which arrives later this month); what came thereafter was a glut of guilty teen sex punished by knife-wielding maniacs abetted by an ever-increasing arsenal of garish effects. If the genre’s more subtle possibilities went underground at that time, Blair Witch brings them back to light more convincingly than any film since Sissy Spacek took her famous blood bath.
Ultimately, what makes the film so compelling is the way it intertwines ideas of naturalism, the supernatural and nature. The latter has been a theme in American literature since there was such a thing, and Blair Witch‘s ancestry surely includes some of the spookier tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. There’s no “bad woman” hiding out in the heart of nature, is there? And even if there were, she could be conquered by a good woman armed with cameras and other instruments of modern rationality and intrusiveness, right?
Guess again, says the film. “It’s very hard to get lost in America these days, and it’s even harder to stay lost,” remarks Heather at one point, lamenting her plight and not stopping to wonder if maybe America itself is lost. If so, the new wilderness is the technological reality we’ve constructed to replace nature, a reality that points to the one irony that undercuts The Blair Witch Project—a few years hence, no one will believe that kids like these would go into the woods without a cell phone.