Review: 'Blair Witch' not just a walk in the woods
July 22, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Is there really any reason to point it out these days when a film has been over-hyped? Or, more precisely, does over-hype still exist? It's become the movie industry standard to make sure that every man, woman, child, and pet on the planet is salivating over each new release, and 24-hour information-spewers like cable TV and the Internet will see to it from here on out that that'll never change.
Audience "reaction" is practically created by the production company, then applied like a sunscreen against weak reviews.
Even by today's bloated standards, though, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's sometimes blindingly frightful homemade horror movie, "The Blair Witch Project," is a special case. Due to advance raves from the Sundance Film Festival -- and a well-designed Web site that adds considerably to the movie's creepy mystique -- "Blair Witch" garnered a sizable cult following far in advance of it actually opening.
From a premature raving standpoint, it's "Eyes Wide Shut" minus the huge budget, big stars, fancy lighting, elegant camera work, and Stanley Kubrick. Audiences (and a great many critics) will be jumping up and down about the whole thing, even though it only contains about 30 minutes of honestly laudable footage. They are, however, a superb, absolutely terrifying 30 minutes.
This is a mock documentary to some degree, but its raw, hand-held look doesn't allow even that much formality. The premise is that on October 21, 1994, three student filmmakers (well played by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams) headed off to the hills of Maryland to make a documentary about the possibly imaginary Blair Witch, who may or may not have been responsible for a handful of grisly deaths over the years.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers never came back. A year later, their footage was somehow discovered, and what we're looking at is the unnerving, altogether mystifying evidence of what happened to them.
Improvised script, shots
Nearly all of "The Blair Witch Project" is improvised. Myrick and Sanchez's truly inspired approach to the film was to let their cast wander the woods for several days with a tape recorder, 16-millimeter camera, and home video camera in tow, documenting the distant noises and disturbing warning signs that their "directors" were leaving for them in the cover of darkness.
Then, hours of evidently rambling footage was edited down to one little movie that's designed to slowly build on you like a nervous breakdown. Peppered throughout are supremely disquieting set pieces that (sometimes literally) shout: "What the hell is that?!!"
Before we get to the good stuff, though, we have to deal with the movie's huge, nearly crippling problem. It pains me to do so, because the successful sequences are so resoundingly successful. However, it must be noted that if you haven't had a couple cups of coffee before sinking down in your seat, you may find yourself unexpectedly watching "The Blair Insomnia Project." The level of repetition when the students lose their way is disconcerting for a while, just as the directors intended it to be. But any semblance of drive is soon dumped in favor of a meandering "realism" that's normally cut out of other films, for very good reasons.
Myrick and Sanchez are obviously struggling so hard to stretch this baby out to even 82 minutes, you find yourself rooting for the witch after a while. You can't really say that there's character development in the conventional sense, but you do get to see the close-knit group disintegrating before your eyes. In real time. To a large degree, the movie is about the horror of group dynamics.
Donahue's character is the director of the "documentary," and she endlessly badgers her slacker companions to get this shot, get that shot, cross the stream, keep the camera rolling, etc. She's like the straight-A student bossing everyone around behind the counter at McDonald's.
She turns out to be the one who's most responsible for their predicament (her map-reading skills leave a lot to be desired) and, when her friends finally lose it and try to belt her in the side of the head, you can't help but feel a secret thrill. It's just that it takes them so long to get to that point, you'll probably want to belt the projectionist first. It really becomes trying after about 40 minutes, and you've got a long way to go from there.
But let's talk about the soon-to-be-legendary scares. Whenever night falls, the movie takes off, but in a slow creep, with all your childhood fears of the dark suddenly revealing themselves as absolutely reasonable.
Since the weak-registering video camera is the main source of recording the events, many of the most frightening sequences play themselves out on a virtually black screen. It's bad enough when the students climb into their tent for the night and start hearing strange, unexplained popping sounds surrounding them in the distance, but the moment when a crying baby echoes through the darkness is wildly terrifying.
And Donahue's piercing, almost animal-like screams as the trio runs through the woods, not knowing who or what they're running from, or where to go next, will stick with you forever. (Honest to God, I just got goose bumps thinking about it.)
Not to give anything away (the movie is so vague about what's happening, that's almost impossible), but the final sequence is the stuff of sheer, unadulterated nightmares. The images themselves, with the video camera's light dimly sweeping across things that you're certain you don't want to see, are hellish. It really looks like the moment when you force yourself to wake up, not wanting to proceed a step further into the ravings of your sleeping imagination. It takes a long time getting there, but the film's pay-off is all the more powerful for being a lonely, dull thud. It's just you and your worst fears, battling to the death.
"The Blair Witch Project" is scary because it doesn't really show you anything ... a lesson that other horror directors would be well-served to learn. There's only a brief moment when you see blood, but it registers like a howitzer.
For the most part, the soundtrack is what does it to you. If you like to camp out but still get a little creeped by unexplained noises, DO NOT SEE THIS MOVIE. (There's also a ton of "F" words, which is understandable given the characters' predicament.) Rated R. 82 padded minutes.
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