The Blair Witch Project Review
Six years on from its release and The Blair Witch Project is a film that everyone has an opinion on. A quick trawl of the Net reveals the reason why… it rates highly in both listings of the Top 10 Best Horror films and Top 10 Worst. One thing is for certain, a $130,000,000 return on a $40,000 investment speaks volumes and love it or hate it, most of us have seen it and talked about it afterwards, which to me is what good cinema is all about.
The Blair Witch Project is presented as the actual documentary footage taken by three student film-makers who are researching the urban myth of the Blair Witch for their college film-making project. The students visit the scene of some gruesome ritualistic murders in Burkittsville, Maryland where they interview various locals on their knowledge of the Blair Witch legend before entering the nearby forest to complete their footage. In classic horror style, things start to go awry when the students get lost, become angry with one another and start to feel that they are being terrorised by some unseen presence.
The creators of the Blair Witch phenomenon, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez knew they could not compete with their free-spending Hollywood counterparts and had to find another way to attract their audience. Ingeniously and with an understanding of the hitherto untapped potential of the Internet, these guys plotted a whole back-story to allow the Blair Witch myth to grow. With the budget they had, they knew that targeting the inquisitiveness of web-surfers would create a buzz around their story far greater than any conventional marketing campaign could. They created a mock website that slowly revealed parts of the legend and the fate of the three students - all told as if it were real and released months before the film ever hit the cinemas. It worked like a charm and word of mouth caused this site to get bombarded with hits and very quickly gathered its own community, all eager to know the truth. Many went along for the ride - some believed what they read and soon the Blair Witch legend became a real urban myth in the mind of many. The story was back-filled further by a very convincing documentary "Curse of the Blair Witch" that was originally shown on the Sci-Fi channel shortly before the films cinematic release so that by the time the film hit the screens, there was a real buzz about it and it was almost a must-see film from day one.
The tight budget kept the film-makers on their toes throughout the production. To keep up the myth, the film opens as if we are seeing the discovered video footage from the abandoned camera of the missing kids and to a certain extent, we actually were. The three students, (newcomers Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Josh Leonard) playing themselves are indeed sent to camp in the forest over several nights. They were given daily plot outlines and key objectives but apart from that, were left to wander the forest, filming themselves and ad-libbing dialogue. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for this films success - when you see them scared, they are genuinely scared - it is not acting in the conventional sense. Yes, they knew that the Blair Witch was not really chasing them through the forest, but much like camp-fire ghost stories give us the shivers, these guys couldn't help but be nervous when they were being terrorised in the middle of the night in a pitch black forest.
The actors had to be unknowns to ensure that the documentary back story would have some credibility. To their credit, they performed their roles with great aplomb. I haven't seen anything of any of them since so I don't know whether it was just excellent casting and they were being themselves or if they were great character actors. Either way, Heather is great as the dominant, driven, leader of the group whose initial bravado slowly crumbles leading up to the infamous poster shot where she apologises to the camera for her preceding actions. You initially have no sympathy for her as she annoys everyone around her, however by the end you realise what a desperate situation they are all in and this makes the ending more powerful. Michael, the soundman immediately starts off on the wrong foot with Heather and he too helps to frame the claustrophobic atmosphere of the story as he starts to lose control and becomes the loose cannon of the group. Josh the cameraman is the calming influence in the team so when he finally starts to panic then the group (and the audience) realise the gravity of their situation.
Following the adage "less is more", the film makers made a wise choice not to reveal any creatures, psycho's or anything else that with their budget would probably look cheesy. Instead they leave the interpretation of the story completely open for the viewer and this works tremendously well with a very dark and abrupt, refreshingly non-Hollywood ending leaving the audience in suspense.
Many have criticised the film for it’s amateurish presentation, lack of story or that it wasn’t scary. I think a lot depends on how and where you first saw this film. Those lucky enough to have seen it at the cinema, before knowing too much about it or hearing too much of the hype would have enjoyed this movie more than most. Those that first saw it on DVD after hearing so much about it might have been left wondering what all the fuss was about. It is easy to criticise this film and I’ve seen many comments such as “Anyone could have done better than this with their own camcorder”, but that’s the point – they didn’t – these guys did it first and it now seems obvious as most great ideas do, however a mark of how hard it actually is to make such a project work can be seen in the lack of success of similarly styled movies and indeed, even the team behind the original weren’t able to recreate the magic when Hollywood stepped up for a piece of the action with the sequel “The Book of Shadows”.The Blair Witch Project is my choice of Halloween movie because blood, guts and gore don’t do it for me – my imagination is a darker place than any special effect can conjure up and The Blair Witch Project taps into this – if it works for you, you will have found something about this movie getting under your skin and leaving you with a cold shiver at the end. Either way, you’ll never look at twigs in the same way again!