If you’d like to be creeped out by an amazing and shocking document, then go see The Blair Witch Project without reading this or any other review. If you want to steel your resolve before seeing it, then read on.
The Blair Witch Project is an original urban myth. A title card tells us that the film you are about to see is true. Three filmmakers disappeared in 1994 while shooting a documentary about a legendary witch of Burkitsville, Maryland. The filmmakers vanished somewhere, somehow, in those woods. Finally, their footage was found and edited chronologically to make this movie.
The three students, Josh, Michael and Heather, went in search of the “Blair Witch.” According to legend, an old woman disappeared several hundred years ago and to this day she still haunts the woods outside the town.
The trio drive from film school to the town. An early shot in the Burkitsville graveyard has Heather standing by a grave, reading from a book. She looks like a bad TV news anchor wannabe. It’s very hokey, but then, she’s no Ken Burns.
Next they interview a few of the locals. A man tells how she’s rumored to have killed her victims: killing one first while the others were forced to listen to the screams, standing in a corner. Another woman reassures her young daughter that there’s no such thing as the Blair Witch— then winks at the camera and mouths “it’s true.” A couple of fishermen debate whether or not they believe in the witch.
All in all, the residents of Burkitsville look like ordinary people. The ones who talk about the witch look like the sorts of people who would believe in that sort of thing. The movie is shot mostly on video, with non-actors playing themselves. There are no bad actors because nobody’s “acting.” There was surely a rough script, but most of the performances were not rehearsed.
Next the three have to pack up their gear and hike a day into the woods, to a spot where the witch was said to haunt. When they get there, Heather stages a scene where she reads an account of the witch from a certain cave. It’s the exact spot where the witch supposedly abducted some children. Heather’s documentary looks like it would have been pretty lame, but at least she’s sticking to her schedule and her script.
The three must camp in the “haunted” woods that night because of the length of the hike. The following day they pack their gear and head back to the car. But instead of ending up at their car, they end up — well, somewhere else. In the 2 days hiking, they have become lost.
(Spoilers ahead: stop reading now or forever hold your peace.)
As the title card tells you, they never get un-lost. Their agonizing descent from annoyance and anger to fear and desperation is not so much pitiable as it is horrible, which is exactly what Myrick and Sanchez were hoping for.
There are four techniques that really make Blair Witch effective.
The first is absolutely essential for this type of horror movie. In order to be scared by the supernatural, you have to first be convinced of it. You have to be led by the hand from scoffing disbelief, through entertaining the theory, to buying in. The characters you empathize with have to start out saying “yeah, right, ghosts” and end up running and screaming.
Blair Witch does this very well: when the trio realize they’re lost in the woods, they go through some very rational thoughts. They’re not afraid a witch is going to eat them, they’re just annoyed at the inconvenience: the rented equipment is going to be charged for an extra day, someone’s girlfriend is going to be angry, their filming schedule has been ruined.
The movie takes its time going through the descent to fear, which gives the audience time to come down with them. It is only after much screen time, when they run out of cigarettes, food, and water, that they start believing in the supernatural. And why not? You would too.
The second technique is that it never shows you the agent of the terror. By making the “witch” invisible, there is always the possibility that the terror springs from the mind, from fear, hunger, and fatigue. Even if you become convinced that the terror is real, its invisibility will force your imagination to make the thing more horrible than any solid image could.
The second technique is enhanced by the third, the amateur quality of the footage. Sometimes it’s too dark or blurry to get a clear picture of even what’s right in front of your face. Also, the whole concept of shooting on video and cheap film stock gives the movie a look of reality that just can’t be faked. Because the subjects acknowledge the camera, you can’t as easily say “it’s just a movie.”
Finally, the movie works so well because of its actors, who were put through quite an ordeal in the taping and filming of the movie. Myrick and Sanchez made their actors hike to a specified location with a map and a global positioning system; none of them were familiar with the terrain. They had to be in character the whole time the camera was running (which was a lot), and their emotion, jibes, and fights were probably 90% “real.” To make it easier for them to stay in character, the characters were given the same names as the actors.
Horror guru Pablo Kjolseth will tell you that this concept (of terrorizing your actors in order to get realistic looking “fear”) is not original. Neither is the idea of creating an urban myth for the screen.
Nevertheless The Blair Witch Project it is fresh for 1999, and most importantly, it worked. It really is the scariest movie in quite a long time.