The Blair Witch Project Review
Fear can hold anyone prisoner – suffocating them, altering their perceptions until insanity and paranoia soon creep in. The feeling of extreme terror in a foreign place must be awful: all you are focusing on is a way to end it, a way to escape. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, two student filmmakers, decided to touch upon that notion with their debut, The Blair Witch Project. An intriguing premise and original style of filmmaking is one sure way of breaking the conventional mould and making something that little bit special…and this film certainly falls into that category.
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. The footage contains the last few days in the lives of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, as they investigate the myth of the local Blair Witch. Soon, their little venture into the woods becomes a time of heart-stopping terror – they become lost, hunger sets in, accusations fly…and they realise something is hunting them.
During production, the film was marketed as a real documentary: as if the events really occurred. Propelled by a website (www.blairwitch.com) and materials that suggested three students really did perish in 1994 in the Maryland woods, soon people began to assume it was the truth. A whole legacy and myth was written, and it all added up to being one of the most successful and accomplished acts of marketing a film. Since the three actors' real identities share the names of the characters, anyone inclined on looking up the validity of the three filmmakers will stumble across real people.
Audiences perceived this as a true story, so in cinemas this was met by intense terror, amplified by people thinking that the trio on-screen really did exist – and really did experience this nightmare. The angle that Myrick and Sánchez have attacked here is certainly original: shooting on poor-quality Hi-8 and black and white 16mm, this lends to a realistic documentary feel. The Hi-8 is employed as a way of the filmmakers themselves recording their experiences during the trip, and the 16mm is what they 'officially' used to make the documentary – and the film is edited together from one to the other, creating a shaking Hi-8 colour version, and a more stable black and white 16mm one.
Through interviews with the 'inhabitants' of Burkittsville and the terror that unfolds in the woods, this certainly is engrossing. Touching on myth and human inquisition, the three characters are certainly human: we all enjoy gossiping about local supernatural legends, and seeing these young – and some may say naïve – students following their curiosity is very natural and real. Subsequent events do not fall into usual horror cliché, instead they hint at what is out in those deep, dark woods…and leave the rest to the audience's imagination. Yes, the viewer themselves will be the one creating the horror, and that perhaps is the most valuable tool.
The three actors – Donahue, Leonard and Williams – all play the terrified and shrieking students down pat, an outlet of the audience's own fear. Seeing them slowly break up only increases the audience's unease. Yes, there are flaws; notably my own disappointment that the rich back-story developed for the film is not presented in as much detail as it was for other sources, such as the aforementioned website. The legacy of the Blair Witch adds so much to the story's wealth, so it is a missed opportunity not to devote some of the running time to explaining the finer points.
There is no blood or gore, nothing for conventional horror fans to sink their (vampire) teeth into. Instead, the two inexperienced directors in terms of filmography have made a very mature and intense film, something that is so original yet also so engaging it will leave a palpable sense of fear in your mouth for days to come.
Considering the nature of the film, normal DVD rules don’t apply – technical presentation will not be the usual high standard. The Blair Witch Project was not shot in widescreen, nor was it given a 5.1 mix…instead what we get here is the way the filmmakers perceived the film to be shown, the one and only way that this film can be marketed. And for that, show it some mercy…
The menus are animated fairly nicely, with the woods being shown as a foreboding place from the start. They are easy to navigate.
The film may be presented in 1.33:1 standard – aka fullscreen – but it only adds to the sense that what the audience are watching may indeed be true. Yes, the true benefits of scares from a widescreen print may be absent (John Carpenter's Halloween is a textbook example of how to present a film in an effective way to terrorise the audience), but there is something that is unique and engaging about witnessing the trio's nightmare through their camcorder lens. Replicated well on DVD, the reason the score is slightly below par is due to visible artifacts…but, like I say, in this instance it is best not to take the video score into account.
Likewise, the audio does not consist of a bombastic soundstage, yet it achieves what it needs to: working with the visuals to amplify the viewer's unease. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is good, crisp and clear throughout, with dialogue always presented with clarity, and come night time all the spooky goings-on sweep around the viewer. Perhaps a remix could have been included on the disc in 5.1, with sound design to improve and precisely place the aforementioned sound effects, but at the end of the day one must always enjoy a film the way the director intends us to. And for that, this again is perfectly suited.
It’s interesting to see how the extras are displayed on the disc: the first menu screen is themed as a 'mockumentary' – as if the film's subject matter is indeed real, and the second screen is themed on the actual making of the fictional film. The first screen kicks off with a feature entitled 'The Curse of the Blair Witch', a mockumentary look at the mythology behind the film. Interviewing 'residents' of Burkittsville, it is a fascinating exploration of the stories that surround the Blair Witch. As good as the film itself, its 46 minutes fly past.
'Newly Discovered Footage' is included: in non-Blair Witch terms this means a collection of deleted scenes, comprising of a couple of short sequences that should have rightly been cut as they add little to the narrative. For fans of the film they are worth checking out, mind.
A textual extra, 'The Blair Witch Legacy', is available for those wanting to find out all they can about the rich mythology devised to surround and encapsulate the film. However, I for one do not like extras that involve staring at page after page of small text on a screen. For those who do, this is worth a look.
Treading the line between assuming The Blair Witch Project is real or not is a collection of biographies for the three actors and two directors. Styled in the guise of the former, upon closer inspection they serve as a mere CV for the actor, and not the characters they play.
Moving onto the second screen, there is an assortment of TV spots that served to market the film upon its cinema release. Short and to the point, they are quite effective…likewise, some teaser trailers are included. A link to the website completes the marketing for the film.
An interesting feature called 'Fear Sections' contains terms that are explored in the film, such as terror, and then a short interview with a psychologist is played upon clicking on one of them.
Finally, an interview with the two directors is split up into shorter segments (sadly there is no 'Play All' function) and it is interesting to hear their comments on their acclaimed debut. The directors/producers audio commentary also makes essential listening.
This film was panned by many – but mainly due to them not fully understanding the significance of the shaky footage that assaults our senses for little over an hour. Very atmospheric, original and yes, scary, this is definitely worth a watch. For those who have already passed a judgment of dislike, I advise you to perhaps reconsider your decision through a repeat viewing: and this DVD makes the perfect chance. Supplied with some good and insightful extras, for instance the documentary that enhances the strength of the film, the overall presentation of this low-budget horror is very pleasing indeed.