The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directed by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick
Cast: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard.
1999 87 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and intensity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 5, 1999; Updated September 2013.
"On October 21, 1994, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams hiked into the Black Hills Forest to shoot a documentary film on a local legend called 'The Blair Witch,' and were never seen again. One year later, their footage was found."
This is the title card that appears at the start of "The Blair Witch Project," a film made on a microscopic budget by first-time writer-directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick that probably caused more of a stir with audiences than any other motion picture that was showcased at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
What follows is that footage that was ultimately found in the forest, meticulously edited together from the 16mm and video formats they used to shoot it on. Set up as a sort of pseudo-documentary, "The Blair Witch Project" begins with the three aforementioned Montgomery College students preparing for their trip to Burkittsville, Maryland, home of the legendary Blair Witch who, as the people they interview in the town tell it, lives within the Black Hills Forest and murdered a string of children in the 1940's. Playfully shrugging off such horrific stories, the headstrong Heather, constantly with a Hi-8 video camera in her hand and using a map and compass, leads Joshua (who is filming with a grainy black-and-white 16mm camera) and Michael (who is there to pick up the sound) deep into the woods for what is supposed to be a simple 2-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, and the next day, they discover voodoo dolls and eerie symbols hanging over the trees. As the days pass by, their food begins to dwindle, the pitch black, freezing nights grow more and more intense and threatening as increasingly loud cackling noises and screams are heard, and they become hopelessly lost within the mouth of the forest, the three students are forced to come to terms with themselves and reconstruct their vision of what raw, unadulterated horror really is.
When was the last time you've been scared by a movie? No, strike that. When was the last time you have been so completely and utterly horrified by a motion picture that, when the end credits began to roll, you were left curled up in your chair, literally shaking, and filled with so many strong emotions that you weren't quite sure how to decipher it all? If your answer was never (which it most likely was), look no further than "The Blair Witch Project," which is a horror film like no other. It is not another manufactured and slick "Scream"-style flick, but a true horror movie, one drenched in such a thick, smothering veil of hopelessness and dread, not to mention utter realism, that it finally stops becoming merely a "movie" and is transformed into something that means more, as if you are watching a true-to-life documentation of the terror three students fell face-to-face upon on that fateful, chilly October week before they disappeared without a trace.
Also, unlike any other film I have ever seen, "The Blair Witch Project" is constantly shown from the point-of-view of one of the characters, since the movie is made up of the footage they filmed. This cinema verite style of filmmaking adds to the constant feeling that what you are watching is not fiction, but genuinely authentic, as it puts the viewer smack dab in the middle of the absolute nightmare. Jittery, shaky, and hand-held, the camera ultimately takes on a life all its own, used as a sort of 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, to say the least, ordeal.
To put it bluntly, there is no acting in "The Blair Witch Project." There is, since Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard are playing characters (despite have the same names), but what I mean is that there isn't a minute, a second, or even a frame where you can ever catch the actors "acting." Their entirely believable performances which, for the most part, were improvised for the eight days they spent in the woods, are mindblowing, to say the least. As the character of Heather starts off as a confidant young woman, and the leader of the group, she gradually finds that this feeling of always being right is only a facade to hide her own weaknesses and fears for the future. As Heather, as well as Michael and Joshua, slowly break down, becoming vulnerable and beyond frightened, they 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 more power and truthfulness than I can remember in any other film I've ever seen, Heather, centering the camera directly on her right eye and nose, pours all of her emotions out, confessing to the faults of her own life, apologizing to her family, her comrades' families, her friends, and finally, making peace with herself.
To see "The Blair Witch Project" is not to simply watch it, but to experience it. No film in recent memory has shocked me, petrified me, unsettled my spirits, and left me so enthusiastic afterwards, making me want to discuss and share the picture with others. After rustling through so many recent turkeys, "The Blair Witch Project" has reminded me why I love the sacred medium of film, and why I want to dedicate my life to it. Writer-directors Sánchez and Myrick have thrust upon the world a motion picture with more promise, originality, and excitement than I can remember, and as a horror film, without any actually physical gore or even violence, it is more unsettling, atmospheric, devastating, and unforgettable than I ever, in my wildest imagination, expected a film could possibly be.
©1999 by Dustin Putman