Not the most haunting, most disturbing, most horrific, most violent, most beautiful, most dreamlike or most vile.
Just flat out the scariest.
Scarier than "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Scarier than the shower scene in "Psycho" the first time you see it. Scarier than the final twist in "Carrie" and the shark attacks in "Jaws."
Scary to the bone.
In October of 1994, a brief written prologue informs the audience, three film students from Montgomery College went into the woods near Burkittsville, Md., to shoot a documentary about a local legend called the Blair Witch.
They were never seen again.
However and here is the film's simple, exquisite conceit a year later their equipment and film were found, buried in the foundation of a deserted house, and it is this unfinished footage, supposedly pieced together by directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, that is the film that we, the audience, are told we are watching. A movie within a movie, "The Blair Witch Project" is presented as interrupted, unverifiable cinema verite, a patchwork of the actual film work on the students' documentary and a simultaneously video-recorded diary of the making of that documentary.
Director Heather Donahue, cameraman Joshua Leonard and sound man Michael Williams (all the characters have the same names as the actors who play them) pile into Josh's car one October morning and head up to Burkittsville. Heather wants man-in-the-street interviews about the staying power of the 200-year-old legend, as well as shots of sites connected with the Witch: Coffin Rock, for example, where in 1886 some men who had been searching for a vanished child were found bound, dead and disemboweled. Before anyone could make sense of the strange letters carved into their faces, the bodies mysteriously disappeared.
Some of the present-day townspeople have heard the Witch stories, some aren't sure. Those who have mention the hermit who, in the 1940s, lured children to his forest cabin and slaughtered them, or bring up the claims of a local nut to have seen in the woods a woman covered with short hair, "like a horse." As a mother talks to the camera, her 2-year-old daughter, held in her arms, keeps putting a hand over Mom's mouth: Don't tell!
Don't ask, either, the audience thinks nervously, but in the time-honored fashion of horror movie characters everywhere, our heroes strike off into the woods. This isn't some mysterious, shadowy, Gothic forest. It's scrubby and scraggly in the most banal way, and as the filmmakers become progressively more lost, these dull, ugly woods seem to swell, as if from some psychic sap, with terror.
If ever a movie proved that what you don't see is scarier than what you do, this one is it. Because Heather and her crew don't know the real story they're filming the story of their doom their cameras catch bits and pieces of random action. The audience has to piece things together from sequences that stop in the middle, or gaze for a long, boring minute or so at a shot of weeds while, the camera momentarily forgotten, the characters argue. We never get quite enough information to figure out what's happening, but thanks to the scriptstructure worked out by Myrick and Sanchez we always get enough to make us dread what's coming next.
Though the story was plotted very carefully, the dialogue was improvised. The raw, amateurish-seeming scenes that result, with their repetitiveness and lack of focus, only pull us deeper into the film's illusion that what we're seeing really happened. The actors, who actually spent several days in the woods, eating less and less and never quite sure what was going on, come apart harrowingly. Its ghost story aside, the movie is a nerve-racking account of a group of people going to pieces under stress.
Presented as an incomplete student film, "The Blair Witch Project," of course, is a student film: that is to say, experimental, in love with the medium, irreverent and high-spirited. With its what's-real? playfulness and antic use of film conventions, the movie is like Orson Welles's famous 1938 radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds," in which Welles forsook ordinary dramatic narrative and instead pretended to "break into" a regular broadcast with a series of increasingly disturbing "news announcements." A hysterical nation ran screaming into the streets. Like that youthfully impetuous near-hoax, Myrick and Sanchez's movie is a work that plays with form, technical possibilities, audience expectations and the idea of a show as a magic trick.
"The Blair Witch Project" is terrifying. It's also an exuberant prank of genius.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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