The Blair Witch Project (1999)
(Premiere Date: January 25, 1999 [Sundance Film Festival])
(Release Date: July 16, 1999 [Limited])
(Release Date: July 30, 1999 [Wide])

Who DARES disturb my WOODS? Who DARES disturb my WOODS? 1/2

We'll just keep on going South... South... South...

J.C. Maçek III... 

Were Bitch Critic!
J.C. Maçek III
The World's Greatest Critic!!!

In the annals of film lore there are a few films that stand out as big surprises for varied reasons. Some are noted for their unexpected financial success, some for their unconventional filming styles, some for their word-of-mouth notoriety, some merely for their marketing campaign. And then there's The Blair Witch Project, the remarkably profitable Cinema verite-style mockumentary that, due to its viral marketing campaign and word-of-mouth publicity, convinced a whole slew of viewers out there that this was 100% real.

It 100% isn't.

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Was I one of the ones completely fooled? No way! Not at all. Not even a little bit. Okay... a little bit. Well, maybe a lot. All right, all right, for a short time I was completely convinced.

To be fair, at the time, all we were given was a shaky preview (after all, who would intentionally make a movie like that?) and a mysterious website, along with a series of quotes indicating the film was "scary as hell". To the 56k Modem-era in a pre-Wikipedia time (when was not quite the household word that it is now) there were those of us convinced that a group of film students had traveled to the woods in Maryland to make a documentary and vanished and that the footage we were to see was the genuine article.

To be even more fair, when Cannibal Holocaust was released almost twenty years prior, featuring a similar plot and techniques, not only were a whole lot of people convinced that was real, the director was actually arrested for suspicion of murder. So you can see why I didn't feel like a completely gullible stooge.

I did, actually.

Okay, yeah, I still do.

What convinced me otherwise was not the "shocking revelation" of the truth, nor was it the shift in prevailing thought, nor was it even the viewing of the actual film. It was a Sci-Fi Channel "documentary" called Curse of the Blair Witch, designed, like the website and the rest of the marketing campaign, to convince potential viewers that this was the real deal Holyfield. Ironic? Academically, sure, but that "documentary" was so ridiculous and far-fetched that two of the three of us watching the damned thing sat through it laughing our asses off. The third in our trio was still fooled, even when one of the "actors" (yes, the "real" footage was accompanied by a "dramatis personae" listing) was led off the set cracking up. He did buy a bridge in El Paso from me, though, so he's got that going for him.

Naturally, I went into the film a staunch nonbeliever, but very ready to be entertained. Unfortunately, The Blair Witch Project isn't much of a movie. As a phenomenon, however, it was (and to an extent, is) amazing.

I walked out of the film hating it. Not the least of reasons being its "nausea factor" due not to graphic, disgusting content, but to motion sickness. The camera is Shakier than "Free Ice Cream Day" at McDonald's! In retrospect, writers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (who also are credited as the directors) did pull off some interesting things inclusive to the film, unrelated to the marketing campaign.

We begin with the introduction of our characters, each of whom has the same name as the actors who play them (lending an additional element of realism). Through the lens of her color video camera Heather (Heather Donahue) explains that she is a college student who has traveled to Burkittsville, Maryland to investigate the local legends that apparently started in the 1700s when the township was called "Blair". Along with fellow student Josh (Joshua Leonard) and the new guy in charge of the sound rig, Mike (Michael C. Williams), she sets about interviewing the towns people and investigating the many facets of the legend and the horrific ripples it wrought over the years. Serial Killers, unexplained disappearances, arson and more are all said to be related to either the legend or the witchy basis herself (supposedly a condemned woman named Elly Kedward).

The interviews largely feel unrehearsed and off-the-cuff, which helps the realism. Those that don't feel real are attributed to "crazy people" who are, let's face it, going to seem pretty unreal anyway.

The plot shifts greatly when the trio goes into the woods to capture actual locations rumored to have been influenced by the Blair Witch or those who have come after her. What was intended to be a one night trip goes on to last for several increasingly horrifying days.

Well... "Horrifying" isn't exactly the right word. "Inconvenient" or "Annoying" or even "Frustrating" would much more accurately fit the bill.

The biggest problem is that they get lost and continually go in circles. I get that, really. If I get off the freeway and it takes me more than two minutes to find the on-ramp again, I feel like taking a hostage, man. These kids' frustration goes on for days as they pass the same landmarks over and over again, getting increasingly crazier, hungrier and more irritated with each other. It only gets worse when the woods get weird. It starts with varied small piles of rock surrounding their tents, continues with the faint sounds of people in the woods at night, gets more eerie with the appearance of the now-iconic stick-figures, ornamenting the pines like Christmas Trees from Hell and culminates in actual attacks on the campsite. The film doesn't end until the cameras are forced to stop.

Much of this seems real because much of it actually was. Although Sanchez and Myrick are credited as the writers of this film, they are actually more of the "idea men". The legends they set forth as real folklore were made up by them (though influenced by stories unrelated to Maryland) and they created the basic plotline. The actors were given cameras (one of which they actually broke) and sent out into the woods, given cues and terrorized in varied spooky ways. Many in real life might turn off the cameras and focus on survival, but then we wouldn't have a movie. Therefore it's explained that Heather leaves her camcorder on as a psychological tool to keep her separated from reality as best she can. At other times the cameras are used simply because they have lights on them and it's dark. Still other times they are used for their original purpose... to document the Blair Witch. Many of the shocks, twists and surprises were new to the actors as they happened.

A further success in realism is found in the subtleties of many of the imperfections found here. The Blair Witch Project presents itself as the editing together of real footage found after Mike, Josh and Heather's disappearance. The footage jumps from Heather's camcorder to the 16-millimeter black and white and back in certain scenes (when both are in use, that is). However, the 16-millimeter camera had a separate rig for sound (which isn't always carried), whereas the camcorder had a low-resolution microphone built in. When the cameras are separated, we only hear the remote and distant sounds picked up by the camcorder when we're seeing the black and white images.

Yes, there's a lot of attention to detail here, especially for what is, in essence, an amateur film. The final result doesn't amount to a great film, however. Instead of a monolithic horror movie, what we have amounts to much more of a detail of three lost kids getting "raided" at a summer camp. This would have been more scary if one of them had awakened with a toothpaste necklace and a shaving cream beard or if they found the recording equipment loaded up with Silly String or something.

While I'll admit that being awakened in the middle of the night by having my tent beaten on by jackasses would be an unpleasant experience, it would be less likely to make me want to turn on the camera and run than it would be to get pissed off and kick somebody's ass. I get grouchy when I'm awakened, damn it. If someone surrounded my tent with rocks, I'd keep the damned things until they showed back up and then I'd chuck it at them, or rearrange them to spell out "Not Funny, Dick!" If some nerd showed up and hung a bunch of stick figures around to freak me out, I'd pull them down and use the wood and twine to create the image of a stick-hand flipping them off. If I'm trying to sleep and a bunch of hicks are having some satanic hootenanny I'd start yelling at them to shut the hell up and probably add "This isn't Deliverance, man!" If somebody kidnapped my friend and cut out their-

Okay, you got me there, that would suck.

Primarily this is a film about motion sickness, frustration and getting lost in the woods. Although the ideas were relatively well thought out and interesting, the film is more about irritation, annoyance and anger than horror. Can you be enthralled by watching three people continually looking at a compass and saying "Let's go South now!" over and over again? Ultimately, South is where they go, and they take the film with them. The marketing campaign and the great success that it spawned are the real areas of note here. Interestingly, it's hard to really call this one an "Exploitation Flick" in spite of this. It was a small film that got big due to its mystery, not really a film that existed for its marketing. Big is right, seeing as how this film (the budget of which has ranged in reports from 22k to 60k) passed the hundred million dollar mark in its first year and (at the time of this writing) has made Two Hundred Fifty Million Dollars. That's quite a ratio. Just ask The Guinness Book of World Records!

The Blair Witch Project is impressive and surprising for a lot of reasons and might have been a "good find" if it hadn't become such a phenomenon. As it is, it's worthy of a look, at least to understand what the fuss was (and is) all about. It's also worth abooooooooout... Two and a half Stars out of Five. The fans will say that's too few, the detractors will say that's too many. To those of you who are still believers, don't run to the Burkittsville woods with your shovels just yet. I assure you that Josh, Heather and Mike did not vanish without a trace. Heather has had thirteen acting credits since Blair Witch including an appearance on CBS' Without a Trace. Mike has had ten since then, including... a completely different episode of Without a Trace. Josh didn't disappear either, although his resume doesn't include an appearance on that show. No, he's had thirty-five screen acting credits since Blair Witch, most of which, yes indeed, were speaking roles. Now ask me about Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist, Primeval and The Entity!

The Easter Bunny, however, is real.

So until I disappear and somebody makes a movie about the last oddball Star Wars Montage video I did for YouTube, I'll see you in the next reel.

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The Blair Witch Project (1999) reviewed by J.C. Maçek III
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