The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Starring Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams,
Written & directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez.
Review by Carlo Cavagna.
(Note: For a more positive review of The Blair Witch Project, read Dana's critique. Dana has rated this movie an A-.)
Plot Synopsis by Dana: Presented as if it were a documentary, The Blair Witch Project begins with a title card explaining that what you are about to see is footage found in the woods of Maryland a year after the three young people who shot it disappeared. Beyond that, there is no introduction, nor is there a denouement. The film is comprised entirely of the assembled footage. Aspiring filmmaker Heather has recruited her friend Josh to act as cinematographer on her documentary project. Josh, in turn, has recruited his friend Michael to accompany them as sound recordist. Via video footage documenting the making of her documentary and the 16mm footage shot for the project, we follow them from the planning and packing stages through their trip into the Maryland woods in search of evidence to support or refute a local myth, which concerns a string of disappearances purportedly linked to a supernatural being who haunts those woods. From the outset we know that they too will disappear, and that their footage will tell as much of their story as can ever be known.
That's right, a D+. I'm fully aware that The Blair Witch Project has amassed quite a store of critical acclaim, but I attribute some of the accolades to what I call "independent film bias." While I can see how the film's hyper-realism might be appealing to some audiences (as it was to my fellow AboutFilm.Com critic Dana, whose opinion I always respect), I can't help thinking that some reviewers are praising The Blair Witch Project only because it differs so much from Hollywood fare. Made for only about $35,000 by a couple of film students, it's about as independent as an independent film can get. Some of the people involved (particularly Heather Donahue) exhibit promising talent, but ultimately The Blair Witch Project is a half-realized student effort accompanied by a clever marketing campaign, nothing more.
There have been a handful of other critical voices in the wilderness. Most of these have focused on the lack of a conclusive ending, the immaturity of the characters, and the dizzying camerawork. Although the camerawork did give me a massive headache, these are not my objections to the movie. I don't expect a film to tie all its loose ends together--in fact, I prefer it when certain things are left to the audience to interpret and digest. In fact, the idea behind The Blair Witch Project (that it is purportedly the footage shot by three student filmmakers in the woods before they disappear) is brilliantly original.
Complaints that characters are too "juvenile," too silly, or too stupid are out of touch with reality. To me, the three kids are convincingly real, as is their improvised dialogue. Heather Donahue is an impressive actress, and her eponymous character is extraordinarily multilayered and well-conceived. She is very much a "type-A" person--a control freak--and when she begins to fall apart emotionally, she does so just as any control freak would--in part by insisting on taking all the blame! Michael Williams is also effective. I like how Mike goes from being the aloof tag-along to an irresponsible jerk before finally becoming the emotional ballast. As for Joshua Leonard, he was the least interesting character or actor of the three, but he delivered a competent effort, always remaining credible. The characters, their development, and their interaction are the best things about The Blair Witch Project.
So what is it about The Blair Witch Project that left me bored and unengaged? I asked myself this question repeatedly before I finally realized that it was the writing. An inventive concept and outstandingly well-improvised dialogue is no substitute for a coherent narrative vision. Inventive and commendably subversive though it may be, The Blair Witch Project is little more than three kids running around the woods. Sounds of rocks being kicked around after dark and bundles of sticks left for the characters to find did not tickle my imagination. My reaction to the ending was, "That's it?"
I'm not suggesting that The Blair Witch Project should have a more conclusive resolution. What I am suggesting is that there ought to be more for the audience to sink its teeth into. I wanted to walk out of the movie theater with clues to mull over and possible explanations to ponder. But instead I walked out with nothing, because there isn't enough investigation of the events that unfold on screen.
The Blair Witch Project begins with a handful of interviews with local townspeople who give realistically jumbled accounts of the local legends. Beyond these stories, we see only a short uninformative monologue by Heather intended to introduce her documentary. Heather, Joshua, and Mike don't make much of an attempt to sift through the legends, which is odd because they are supposedly making a documentary.
Similarly, once the "terror" begins, the three friends make little attempt to relate the events to the ghost stories they've heard. Instead of trying to figure out what's going on, they just react to everything with an "ohmygod." Given how long they are stranded in the woods, it seems strange that they make no attempt to piece together the puzzle. Too intellectual an approach would have, of course, destroyed the film's sense of cinema verité, but a little bit more exposition and discussion would have made subsequent events more interesting.
Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez didn't do anything more than make up a few stories and send the three actors into the woods with cameras with instructions as to where they were eventually supposed to end up. The concept is full of potential, but Myrick and Sanchez should have put more effort into developing the legends and refining their vision. Even if they never solve the mystery for the audience, the filmmakers themselves should have a very clear idea of what's going on behind the scenes, narratively speaking. One gets the unmistakable sense that they do not. As for the ending, it is easily linked to one of the townspeople's stories (but not the others), and that's about all the room for speculation that the audience gets. Putting my complaints in terms of narrative structure, the exposition is too rudimentary, the rising action too uneventful, and the climax too abbreviated.
I suspect that the film is far more effective if you buy the premise that everything you see is real. Early audiences apparently did so. But once you know that The Blair Witch Project is all staged, there's nothing particularly spooky about it. It's just boring. Of course, all movies are staged, but The Blair Witch Project depends on maintaining its sense of hyper-realism in order to scare you.
The official web site, which presents the "real" news reports about the kids' disappearance and describes the Blair Witch legends in detail, is far more interesting than the movie itself. The site provides the context and background that the film lacks. Indeed, anyone intending to see The Blair Witch Project should make sure to visit the web site first. As a component of a groundbreaking multi-media entertainment phenomenon, The Blair Witch Project is not bad, but as a stand-alone movie, it doesn't hold up.
Review © August 1999 by AboutFilm.Com
and the author.
Images © 1999 Artisan Pictures. All rights reserved.