Starring Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard
Written & directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez.
Review by Dana Knowles.
(Note: For a surlier review of The Blair Witch Project, you may wish to read Carlo's review. Carlo has rated this movie a D+.)
Plot Synopsis: Presented as if it were a documentary, The Blair Witch Project begins with a title card explaining that what you are about to see is footage found in the woods of Maryland a year after the three young people who shot it disappeared. Beyond that, there is no introduction, nor is there a denouement. The film is comprised entirely of the assembled footage. Aspiring filmmaker Heather has recruited her friend Josh to act as cinematographer on her documentary project. Josh, in turn, has recruited his friend Michael to accompany them as sound recordist. Via video footage documenting the making of her documentary and the 16mm footage shot for the project, we follow them from the planning and packing stages through their trip into the Maryland woods in search of evidence to support or refute a local myth, which concerns a string of disappearances purportedly linked to a supernatural being who haunts those woods. From the outset we know that they too will disappear, and that their footage will tell as much of their story as can ever be known.
Likely to be mis-categorized as a horror film, The Blair Witch Project can be more accurately described as a portrait of psychological disintegration in the face of terror and hopelessness. Those seeking a new twist on familiar horror conventions will be gravely disappointed. There is nothing even remotely conventional about this film, which is its greatest strength. Still, the lack of conventional narrative devices may alienate a segment of its audience, particularly those who demand or yearn for tidiness and a sense of resolution. This is a film about a mystery that does not entirely solve its mystery. That alone could send folks into fits of frustration and resentment as they exit the theater. Or it could, as was the case with me, leave the audience in a state of profound disturbance that lingers for hours and days and cannot be washed away with discussion or contemplation. I can't recall the last film I saw that affected me so deeply. And I still haven't managed to shake it off.
There are problems with the central conceit of Blair Witch, and it's only fair to say that one must suspend disbelief with regard to a few key details in order to stay with the movie on its own terms. Heather is determined to document every aspect of this journey, and thus we are able to follow the journey via her video camera, which she turns on for events both mundane and extraordinary. In the early and middle parts of the film, this feels utterly natural and credible. Later, when fear consumes her and her companions, it strains credulity that she would maintain her interest in using the camera. You will find yourself thinking "drop it and run!" because you know that is what you would likely do. But if she did so, there would be no movie. The degree to which one stays with this tale depends on one's ability to accept the apparent absurdity of continuing to turn on the camera. For me, this was only a minor problem and was easily overcome. I suspect that a small number of others may be less forgiving, and thus...fair warning is due.
Though structural problems arise from time to time, I cannot say enough about the many crucial elements of this film that work marvelously. The illusion of reality is outstanding. Each of the three lead actors gives a stunningly naturalistic performance, and the writing is top notch. It's difficult to tell how much was scripted and how much may have been improvised, but either way, the effect is nothing short of triumphant. Every detail of every moment rings true, and the sense that we are actually following real people provides the sort of resonance that only rarely surfaces (and is almost never sustained) in fiction films aiming for a cinema verite feel. I believed in these people, which probably accounts for the devastating effect that the film ultimately had on my state of mind. As they slipped deeper and deeper into despair and fear, I found myself so overwhelmed with anxiety that I felt almost physically ill. The progression of events strikes chords so familiar that I was powerless to hold it all at a distance. Cycles of hope, fear, hopelessness, defeat, determination, hope, fear, rage, exhaustion, fear, hopelessness and determination repeat themselves again and again as these characters confront their circumstances. But with each repetition, hope recedes further and further from view, leaving them (and me) in a state of heartbreaking futility.
The Blair Witch Project is not a film for everyone. The likelihood that mainstream audiences will embrace it is minimal, because it opts to be unnerving rather than satisfying. Its absolute defiance of conventional narrative will surely lead to dismissal from some quarters. And yet I think it reaches for something much more profound than cheap thrills and a good yarn. Its effects are on the subconscious, where our empathy for others and our fear of the unknown reside. And as you watch this home movie of three goofy and mostly likeable young people on an innocuous camping trip that goes horribly awry, your response will probably depend upon the degree to which you see yourself in their carefree hubris and their hapless struggle to deal with a progressive loss of control in the face of what cannot be seen or comprehended. They have no idea what fate awaits them or what it means, and yet their belief that this fate is somehow lurking nearby and closing in on them brings the otherwise abstract matters of life and death into stark relief. And somewhere in their experiences lie the haunting echoes of the unknowability of fate itself and of real life mysteries that remain forever unsolved.
Is The Blair Witch Project truly a great film? Or merely a low-budget, high-concept, experimental trifle? I'll leave that to the experts to determine. But I'll say this: if it manages to burrow under your skin, you'll have a hell of a time leaving it behind you in the theater. I found it to be quite literally unforgettable.
Review © June 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and
Images © 1999 Artisan Pictures. All rights reserved.