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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The Blair Witch Project  (1999)
4 Stars
Directed by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick.
Cast: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard.
1999 – 87 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for profanity and intensity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, April 5, 1999; Updated September 2013.
In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary.

A year later their footage was found.

With this foreboding opening text, so begins "The Blair Witch Project," a microscopically budgeted, largely improvised faux-documentary made by first-time directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick. Its mark on cinema history should not be marginalized. Originally billed as actual found footage documenting the days before three college students disappeared—"missing" flyers were even posted around the Maryland-DC-Virginia area—the film sent audiences at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival into a frenzy, its authenticity causing some to think they had just witnessed a virtual snuff movie. As the buzz grew, the Orlando-based Haxan Films production company carved out a viral campaign—really, one of the first of its kind—in the days when Internet-based film promotion was still in its infancy. By the time the picture came to theaters nationwide in the summer of '99 and grossed a staggering $248-million worldwide, its self-made mythology had become practically legendary. People had to see the movie for themselves, and, until its actors began showing up on talk shows soon after, some viewers continued to believe there was nothing fictional about it. Beyond that, the film is responsible for starting the trend of first-person POV flicks that are still, to this day, getting made. There have been some great ones—2007's "[REC]" and 2008's "Cloverfield" spring to mind—but "The Blair Witch Project" remains the best of the bunch.

Supposedly culled from 16mm and video footage found in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland, the story kicks off with a trio of Montgomery College students preparing for their trip to the sleepy town in question. Home of the infamous local legend known as the Blair Witch who, as the residents they interview tell it, lurks within the Black Hills Forest, Burkittsville's lore grows shadier the more the filmmakers learn about it. With a string of child murders in the 1940s committed by a man named Rustin Parr perhaps its most shameful stain, Burkittsville's Blair Witch looms mysteriously over the stories of the past and present. Playfully shrugging off such horrific tales, the headstrong Heather (Heather Donahue), constantly with a Hi-8 video camera in her hand, leads Josh (Joshua Leonard), shooting with a grainy black-and-white 16mm camera, and Michael (Michael Williams), the sound technician, deep into the woods for what is supposed to be a simple two-day excursion. It doesn't turn out that way, however, as they ultimately never make it back to their car on the second day and are forced to set up camp another night. Faint footsteps are heard in the distance and stick figures and eerie symbols are found hanging from the trees. With their map and compass lost, the days tick by, their food dwindling and the freezing, pitch-black nights punctuated by increasingly threatening cackling noises and screams surrounding them. Hopelessly lost within the mouth of the forest, the three students have no choice but to come to terms with the stark gravity of their situation as they begin to reconstruct their personal visions of what raw, unadulterated horror really is.

Shortly after "The Blair Witch Project" premiered at Sundance but several months before it came to multiplexes, an unlabeled VHS cassette ended up in my possession. How and why, I do not recall, but the copy on the tape was of poor quality, shaky and heavily grainy with audio that clearly had not received its final release-ready sound mix. Normally, this would not be an attractive viewing situation, but, for "The Blair Witch Project," it was entirely ideal, magnifying the film's plausibility and rustic aesthetic tenfold while making the whole thing all the more petrifying. That the publicity machine had not yet shifted into overdrive was another positive. I was savvy enough to know the film wasn't a documentary, but that didn't keep it from working its unforgettable spell upon my widened eyes. Choosing to watch the picture for the first time alone in a darkened house was either a smart decision, or a very dumb one. By the end, I was curled up in my chair, literally shaking, filled with so many strong, passionate emotions that it was difficult to decipher them all. Afterward, every opened doorway in my house became another opportunity for the Blair Witch to leap out.

Years later, "The Blair Witch Project" has been the subject of frequent lampoonery and a public backlash from viewers who were either disappointed it did not live up to their heightened expectations, affected by the audience they first saw it with, or are too young to remember just how novel its premise and style were back in 1999. Taken in its proper context, it endures as a landmark of the horror genre, breaking ground in every way while proving talent and ingenuity are much more important than budget when it comes to making a good motion picture. The antithesis of the post-"Scream," pre-manufactured slasher era, the film is drenched in such a thick, smothering veil of hopeless dread and utter realism that it finally ceases to merely be a "movie" and is transformed into something that means and says more—about dreams, about responsibility, about life and death.

Unlike very few features that had been seen up to this point, "The Blair Witch Project" is shot from the point of view of the characters' cameras. This cinéma-vérité style adds to the constant feeling that what is being watched is genuine, dropping one smack dab in the middle of an absolute nightmare. Jittery, shaky and hand-held, the lens ultimately takes on a life all its own, used as a thematically loaded metaphor for the off-kilter frame of mind the characters are forced to obtain as their spirits diminish and they start to question whether they will survive their dire, inexplicable ordeal.

To put it bluntly, there is no acting in "The Blair Witch Project." There is in the strictest sense, since Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard are playing characters (despite having the same names), but there isn't a minute, a second, or even a frame where one can catch the performers "acting." Their committed, entirely unaffected performances often do not get the proper credit; without them, the film's perilous balance would be thrown off. Starting as a confident young woman and the leader of the group, Heather gradually finds that her need to always be right is only a façade to hide her own weaknesses and fears for the future. Vulnerable and beyond frightened, their communication breaking down, she, Michael and Joshua eventually have nothing to do but pray that they will make their way out of the seemingly endless wilderness before whatever really is out there gets them. In a late scene filled with unquenchably raw power and honesty, Heather films her last rites, the camera framed on her right eye and nose as she devastatingly pours all of her emotions out, confessing to the faults in her own life, apologizing to her family and friends, and, finally, making peace with her destiny.

To see "The Blair Witch Project" is not to simply watch it, but to experience it. In the annals of films that can intoxicate, terrify, and leave one's spirits distinctly rattled, only the best of the best can match it. "The Blair Witch Project" isn't simply a masterpiece of the medium, but had the ability to reaffirm my dedication to the art form and my desire to write about cinema during a formidable time when adulthood and future plans were just a breath away. Writer-directors Sánchez and Myrick have never been able to replicate the one-of-a-kind success they had with this, their debut effort, but their legacy within horror's storied past is forever.
© 2013 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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