It’s unexpected. The Blair Witch Project is a horror film with no name stars, little gore, and an even littler budget. And yet, it is the most genuinely scary movie to hit the screens in a long, long time.
The Blair Witch Project is also the title of the film-within-a-film that documentary filmmaker Heather Donahue hopes to make her senior thesis in film school. Heather’s film plans to examine the myth and reality behind the legend of the Blair Witch, who rumoredly has haunted the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland, for nearly three centuries.
To help her shoot the film, Heather enlists the aid of her friend Joshua Leonard to help shoot the footage. Josh, in turn, invites along Michael Williams, an aspiring sound man. The trio start by interviewing the townsfolk of Burkittsville, but soon set off into the wilds…and are never heard from again.
That is, until their documentary footage was “recovered” and assembled into the film that is The Blair Witch Project. The resulting film follows the trio of doomed filmmakers on their journey, showing what they found as well as their mysterious end.
Who or what the Blair Witch is is never quite fully explained. Even Heather’s documentary doesn’t offer much more than vague hints and legends. In fact, come to think of it, Heather wasn’t a very good documentarian. You get the sense that there’s more backstory out there, but it never is revealed to the audience. On the one hand, it makes the world of the Blair Witch Project much more tangible…but it also makes it more frustrating.
The cast does a credible job, more or less playing themselves. Heather is a strong character, and gives the film’s most powerful performance (particularly in the film’s most intense scene towards the end). However, there’s little noticeable difference between Josh and Mike. Both actors manage to make their characters seem like real people…but they are real people we never know anything about.
The central question of any horror film is: Is the movie scary? With The Blair Witch Project, the answer is undoubtedly, yes. It’s certainly a welcome departure from the modern horror film, which have all too often replaced terror with mere gore (not realizing that disgust makes a pitiful substitute for fear). The Blair Witch Project is atmospheric, creepy and unsettling. It may start off slow (particularly for modern audiences), but the movie becomes more unsettling the longer it goes on.
The mock-documentary approach that writer-directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick have taken toward filming The Blair Witch Project is both a blessing and a curse. It certainly increases the immersion factor of the movie. There are times when the film seems terrifyingly real. The limited nature of the camerawork also serves to enhance the suspense (as objects are glimpsed just outside of camera range).
But, the documentary approach creates a fatal flaw in the story structure. The three film students spend more time filming each other and their trek through the wilderness than they do capturing anything on film about their subject. It stretches believability that not only would the trio continue filming constantly after their exploration takes so many turns for the worse, but that every major character conflict and development just happens to be caught on film. Things come dangerously close to feeling staged…and that would destroy the film. Luckily, in the end…the atmosphere wins out. You are too disturbed to notice the serendipitous details of the filming until well after the fact.
The Blair Witch Project is the creepy type of movie that slowly burrows its way into your skin. It seems flimsy and a bit superficial at first, but by the end you’ll be hearing noises and looking over your shoulder.