..

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael Williams
Directors:  Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  87 Minutes
Release Date:  July 11, 1999

Film ****

With a little word of mouth and a great internet campaign, it didn’t take long for The Blair Witch Project to grow from an inexpensively made little independent film to nothing short of a major cultural event.  Movie goers flocked to the theatres, and soon, a movie that was made for about the cost of a new car had raked in over $140 million domestically.  Not everyone loved the film…and I’ll address a couple of the complaints further down…but the point is, people went, and while expensive but empty romps like Wild Wild West floundered, a truly unique and imaginative picture made on a shoestring became one of the year’s biggest hits.  One can only hope Hollywood was paying attention.

The Blair Witch Project is a complete success, and at the time of this writing, is still my pick for best movie of the year.  I loved the film because what it lacked in production value it made up for with imagination and guts.  One need only peruse the web site, or the book, or even the features on this disc to begin to comprehend just how well thought-out the entire concept really was.  Which is a valuable lesson—it doesn’t cost money to think.

This was a horror movie that could almost be considered anti-horror.  None of the conventional scare flick elements exist here.  There’s no score.  There are no special effects.  There are no sudden loud music cues to make you jump.  There are no mask wearing killers, and there are no creepy phantoms.  We never really see what the terror is.  And because of that, it’s all the more frightening.

The movie purports to be the footage filmed by three university students who disappeared in the woods while trying to make a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch.  With that simple premise, directors and writers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez turned their budget limitations into an asset to the story.  Hence, the movie is filmed in 16 mm black and white, and on Super 8 home video, and we accept it.

So Heather, Josh and Mike (their real names) head off into the woods, but what starts out easy enough becomes more and more frustrating and frightening.  They get lost, and appear to be walking in circles.  The food runs out.  What was supposed to be a two day trip turns into a week.  And worst of all, something they can’t see, but can certainly hear, seems to be stalking them.

The tension and fear build simultaneously, as after a few days, the bickering gets worse, the situation gets bleaker, and the terror becomes more and more manifest.  And by the time the films reaches it’s terrific climax, you will be just about completely unnerved.  In fact, this movie kept me up all night when I first saw it, and no horror film had done that to me since I watched The Exorcist for the first time as a child.

But some movie goers haven’t shown quite the same enthusiasm for the film.  One of the major complaints is the camera movement, which has reportedly made some theatre patrons motion sick.  It’s true the cameras move quite a bit, as the characters walk, climb, and run while they film, but I though the effect very authentic.  It looks like most home movies, which adds to the realism.  And my sister, who’s more prone to motion sickness than anybody I know, claimed she didn’t have a problem with it.

Some have also complained about Heather’s character being a bit too bossy and aggressive with her filming.  Again, this is a point that I found completely authentic.  Having worked with some amateur filmmakers in the past, I can truly say that Heather nailed it.  These people do tend to turn into Erich von Stroheim on you, and they really do think that with meager equipment and a couple of friends that they’re going to make Citizen Kane.  Plus, Heather’s early confidence makes for a nice contrast to how she comes apart later, when she’s freezing, tired, hungry and scared out of her mind.  All three cast members are terrific, but I really do applaud Miss Donahue loudly for her work in turning in one of the most courageous performances of the year.

And some have also said the movie just flat out didn’t scare them.  What can I say?  I can’t tell you if this movie will have the same effect on you as it did on me. but I can’t help but think if you really pay attention from frame one, and let the movie work it’s slowly building spell on you, and if you have the kind of imagination that kicks in when a film deliberately doesn’t show you too much, you might just have a restless night of your own afterward.

Video ***

This is not the best looking disc you’ll own, nor could it be.  Having seen the film three times theatrically, I can say that this DVD is an excellent reproduction of what basically is limited source material.  In other words, 16 mm and home video footage will never look spectacular.  There is noticeable grain in darker scenes, but that’s how it looked on the big screen. 

Audio ***

The soundtrack was only recorded in surround, but keep the house nice and quiet and you’ll find the listening experience rather ambient and unnerving.  The disc could have opted for enhanced 5.1 sound, which would have been extra creepy given the nature of the film, but it would have taken away some of the primitive documentary illusion, so in the end, I think this was the right way to go.  I don't think those who watch will find many complaints.

Features ****

The disc contains a terrific commentary by the directors and producers, a total of 4 trailers, the “Curse of the Blair Witch” documentary that aired on the Sci Fi Channel, production notes, bios, the mythology, and some cool DVD ROM features.  There is also a deleted scene, which is nothing spectacular.

Summary:

It may not have pleased everybody, but given the success of the film, it’s safe to say it has reached some people.  The Blair Witch Project is an imaginative triumph of talent over money…brilliantly conceived, well acted, and with a genuine feel for what’s really scary.  And thanks to Artisan’s terrific DVD release, this little film can be explored and discussed time and time again in the comfort of your own home…with access to a light switch, if needed.