‘In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary…A year later their footage was found.’
As the opening caption of horror ‘mockumentary’, The Blair Witch Project states as fact, said footage purportedly forming the basis of the film, a film which kick-started a whole style of filmmaking and (somewhat perplexingly) continues to feature in ‘Greatest Horror films’ lists.
Operating from a comparatively tiny budget of $25,000, Co-director-editor-screenwriters Daniel Myryck and Eduardo Sanchez hit on a novel way to stretch their resources, rather than churn out another gory slasher on the loose horror, they went for something less (well thought to be at least) commercial, an atmosphere heavy, largely ad-libbed ‘mockumentary’…it was a gamble that paid off in spades. Opening to massive business in 1999 (With a worldwide gross of over $230 million it became the most profitable film in Hollywood history) and rapidly gaining something of a cult following, the Blair Witch project would go on to spawn an unnecessary sequel, and a legion of imitators.
Whilst the recent glut of (repetitive) ‘found footage young adult on a run’ films may have robbed it of its impact a little (Everything from Cloverfield to Paranormal Activity owes at least something to The Blair Witch Project), and it certainly isn’t as ‘classic’ (or indeed scary) as its reputation suggests, it is by and large a well-made, well intentioned horror, with a gripping finale and impressively naturalistic performances from the cast, which largely draw attention away from the problems Myryck and Sanchez’s production methods unfortunately create.
Young, headstrong, aspiring film director Heather (Heather Donahue) sets of for Burkittville Maryland with cameramen Josh (Joshua Leonard) and Michael (Michael Williams) (It’s not entirely clear if the leads were playing ‘themselves’) to shoot footage for a documentary investigating the legendary ‘Blair Witch’, allegedly responsible for a string of local murders.
Following cryptic interviews with locals and a wrong turn in the woods the trio’s initially cheery disposition turns sour, menacing signs begin to appear, strange noises are heard, and tempers begin to fray as the film as the film gradually builds to its gripping ending….
It’s a simple plot, and the film makes no attempt to complicate things, we learn next to nothing about the characters (even their surnames prove elusive), the ‘story’ could play out in a quarter of the running time, and right from the moment the woods are entered its obvious there can be only one conclusion to the film. None of these are exactly ‘issues’ as it’s what you’d expect from the genre, but even so more seasoned horror fans (or attentive viewers) may find the film a little too easy to anticipate.
A short running time of 78 minutes means the film is hardly a struggle to get through, but as mentioned above, the film feels overlong. The first half of the film is slow burning, introducing the protagonists through predominantly improvised (and often clunky) dialogue, and setting up later scenes with some intriguing foreshadowing (Once you’ve heard several consecutive warnings from elderly locals you know the outcome can’t be good for the trio) it’s not necessarily ‘boring’, but it does very little to help the film’s pace, for such a simple plot it’s surprising how much of the film feels redundant (Oh look they’ve argued next to more trees!). Some viewers may argue such a slow start helps builds tension for the latter half of the film, but that just isn’t true, the latter halve builds tension quite adequately on its own.
The film soon switches tone and becomes more recognisably a horror-though not of the visceral gore fests favoured by today’s audiences. As the trio become ever more disorientated and scared, a baffling series of signs and objects cross their path- oddly piled stones, and effigies hanging in the trees for example, whilst it lacks the shocks of say, Saw, such moments make for absorbing viewing, and soon build a sense of unease, which only increases as the film progresses.
Admittedly some viewers may find the absence of gore or ‘set pieces’ confusing, and the reliance on the ‘cheap thrills’ of scary noises and dark rooms in the film may be an acquired taste, but as proven time and again, what we don’t see is often as effective as what we do, and The Blair Witch Project is at its best when it strays from the ‘commercial’. It’s an approach that won’t convince all viewers, but those hooked will stay hooked until the end.
These encounters also act as jump off points for three convincing performances from the leads, although the ad-libbed dialogue isn’t always of the best quality (Oh, look! They’re talking about tress now!), the trio are excellent, their nervy, strained chemistry fits well with the tone of the film, and anchors even the slower scenes, whilst several unknown actors and locals fill out the small cast, with varying degrees of success.
Even upon its release The Blair Witch Project drew complaints for its reliance on handheld camerawork, yes it does get a little annoying in some of the dialogue scenes, and yes the sudden whip pans and zooms can be a bit nauseating to watch (precisely the point) but it works very well in the film (its usage actually seems quite tepid compared to more recent films), and coupled with its grainy, dirty look (achieved by filming on videotape then transferring the raw footage to 35mm) visually at least the film is very convincing.
The film comes together in a riveting final five minutes (oddly reminiscent of a scene from Silence of the Lambs), which, although rather easy to anticipate, still proves shocking and appropriate… even if it leaves the audience with more questions.
Technically impressive, well-acted and obviously very influential, The Bair Witch project is an short, uneven, and surprisingly ‘tame’ horror, but a reasonably enjoyable one nonetheless.
5.5/10 Paul Ashwell