An Instant Classic
I’m not trying to come off all macho or anything, but I watch a lot of horror movies, and I’m not scared by them easily. This one did the trick – I went to bed afterwards unnerved and eyeing the shadows for hidden goblins.
Three film students, led by camera crazy Heather Donahue (as herself), interviewresidents of what was once Blair, Maryland, about legendary hauntings and horrors in the neighboring woods – and mainly about those concerning the story of the Blair Witch – for a documentary. After, they continue their weekend shoot by backpacking into the woods to shoot footage of the actual locations of the legends – sites of floating apparitions, bound and flayed bodies, and the house of a child killer caught in the 1940s.
Heather wants to make a name for herself as a serious (and a bit pretentious) filmmaker, and even keeps her camcorder rolling to document the shoot itself. Josh Leonard (as himself) wants to show off his skills with the 16mm camera (and quickly reveals his innexperience). Josh’s pal Mike Williams (himself) comes along to run the DAT unit.
After entering the woods, none of them was ever seen again. Their footage, found and assembled a year later, makes up the entire feature. As it reveals, the cocky young trio were quite foolhardy – going from slick film geeks to babes in the woods rather quickly. Not only do they get lost and run out of food, but they come upon weird signs, and they start hearing strange noises around their tent at night. It soon becomes apparent that someone or something is stalking them.
What is after them out there in the woods? Wild animals? Ghosts? Feral hillbilly cannibals? The Blair Witch? Is one of their group going psycho and secretly terrorizing the other two? Or is it something else?
The Blair Witch Project is a horror film with only the scantiest precedents, these being a combination of:
- The cheap indy feature with a rural setting, ala Night of the Living Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, and (it’s most obvious model) The Evil Dead.
- The mock documentary, ala Man Bites Dog and Cannibal Holocaust. The latter may have been especially influential on BWP, as the bulk of it is comprised of footage supposedly shot by filmmakers documenting cannibal tribesmen in the Amazon basin. The first reel, which recounts how the film was found, is reduced to an opening title for BWP.
Be that as it may, credited screenwriters/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have made their film in a totally unique way. In reality, there was no screenplay and no director – Myrick and Sanchez came up with their story, assembled their cast, and sent them out with cameras – leaving instructions along the way for them to find telling what they were supposed to do next. All the dialogue and shooting was done entirely on the fly by the talented principals. Then the real magic was done in the editing room – and by the sound department. The film’s sense of menace builds steadily and relentlessly throughout, building up speed to a genuinely heartstopping climax.
It’s often been noted that the more real a film is the more involving it can be – and the more power it will have to manipulate. Blair Witch grounds the viewer firmly in reality, and masterfully exploits the power of suggestion to build its house of horrors. Radio/movie trailblazer Arch Obler would be proud. No special effects can match what is created in the viewers’ minds. Here is a film that gives you the same feeling you had as a terrified child, huddling under the blankets and holding your breath – lest the boogey man hear you.
Horror fans have been starving for a new classic of the genre. The wait is over.
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