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The Blair Witch Project

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Blair Witch Project

Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams
Director: Daniel Myrick
Rated: R
RunTime: 80 Minutes
Release Date: July 1999
Genre: Horror

*Also starring: Joshua Leonard

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If you're going away this summer, you'll probably be sending the folks back home those picture post cards to make them jealous: "Wish you were here," or some other original quip. Everybody has a great time on vacation. Never mind that the family's all together 24 hours a day under stressful conditions--foreign languages, strange customs, exhausting voyages and tours. Trekkers come home and what do they tell you? We had a great great time...fabulous! Do you believe them?

Take the trio of twenty-somethings that drive to the arboreal acres of Maryland in Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's fresh, imaginative feature. These kids have a purpose, and it isn't to ski, get a tan, play golf, swim, or some other bourgeois design. Like many their age, they considere themselves amateur filmmakers, loading up with both 16mm film and a High-8 video job intent on making a full-sized, prizewinning documentary to confirm or lay doubt on rumors of a witch in the woods. The three who journey on October 21, 1994 are Joshua Leonard, who shoots the 16mm film; Michael Williams, who captures the sound; and the group's leader, a Tracy-Flick-like Heather Donahue who took charge and kept the respect of the two males--for a while. Just one thing, though. "The Blair Witch Project" is not a documentary, not a docudrama, but a mockumentary, or mock documentary designed to give the audience the distinct impression that what they are watching really did happen.

The group hike into the Black Forest region of Maryland, near the town of Burkittsville, to search out an old legend that the region was inhabited by the wicked Blair Witch--who allegedly tortured and killed trespassers from time to time since February 1785. Though an entire town is cursed by this outcast, Burkittsville is founded on the site of this witch, notwithstanding the fate of a 10-year old girl who is dragged to her death by a pale woman's hand--as seen by eleven witnesses.

What made "The Blair Witch Project" captivating to some, so much that when its screening was announced at a recent Sundance Festival every one of a theater's 1300 seats filled up rapidly? Simply this: instead of giving the three trekkers a script to read, Myrick and Sanchez pulled a Marlon Brando and engaged them in "method filmmaking." The three young performers were given quick training in camera work and then turned loose for eight days to improvise according to their actual predilections. The directors planted actors in the town for the three to interview, turning the burg into a kind of Truman Show: the protagonists essentially are to pretend--kind of like Truman Burbank in Peter Weir's comedy--that they are not part of a movie at all. They speak with several salt-of-the-earth townspeople, most of whom insist that they do not believe the legend of the evil enchantress. In the one situation that could cause the audience to shudder, a small baby repeatedly puts her hand across her mother's mouth to prevent the adult from telling the scary story of the Blair Witch.

The treatment given to the three (which resembles an effective fraternity hell week) recalls the training given to the cast of "Saving Private Ryan." The actors playing soldiers on the beach in the riveting opening moments of Steven Spielberg's masterpiece had gone through such rigorous discipline for the role that at least a half dozen repeatedly threatened to quit. In "Blair," Donahue, Williams and Leonard are forced to suffer as actual people in their situation might have done. After a few days, they are soaked, exhausted and hungry to such an extent that they actually feel the terror of the journey, actually fearing for their lives. This adds markedly to the verisimilitude. As the three prepare for the trip by shopping, cracking jokes, and following Heather's background narration, they speak to residents of the town, drive to the woods, and proceed to hike for hours. Without a cell phone, they become increasingly anxious as they lose their bearings. When the map of the area--the only document that could virtually guarantee their safe arrival back to the car--disappears, panic takes over. As Heather, the confident tour leader, begins to lose it--screaming, crying, cursing--the three go increasingly off the wall, their disquiet reaching a climax when two of the party make a gruesome and bloody discovery.

"Blair," at once a road movie, a buddy drama, and a horror show, is the sort of film that could be expected to come from a studio like Artisan, known for willingness to experiment. Last year, Darren Aronofsky's "Pi," released under the Artisan label, became the most innovative indie of the year. "Pi" featured the nerdish Max Cohen, a mathematical genius, who sets out to prove that everything can be reduced to a numerical pattern. Unfortunately, "The Blair Witch Project" does not come close to matching "Pi." Though we may indeed be convinced of the apprehension felt increasingly by the three performers, we feel strangely distanced from their dilemma. The fault lies paradoxically with improvisation which, for my money, almost never works. What's needed to get the pulse of the viewers racing is a solid script by a guy like David Mamet or, going back a while, to a director like James Whale. Only a tight screenplay effected by a director's strong hand, can accomplish the indisputable goal of every horror movie--to scare the living daylights out of everyone willing to suspend disbelief. Take, by contrast, the recent movie "Limbo," which, like this one deals with people who are stranded in a remote area, so desperate for help that they are willing to risk their lives when an opportunity for rescue finally comes. "Limbo" is a near-great film--controversial ending and all--because of the superb skills of John Sayles at the helm. What we have here, though, is a group of kids who scream like banshees, uttering obscenities without a clever piece of dialogue in the 87-minute production. The moral? To convey an atmosphere of anarchy, a film may need an authoritarian hand at the controls--a tight script embodying a real story and firm direction. Though after viewing "Blair" some in the audience might vow never again to travel without a knowledgeable tour guide, I say, "Bring on the woods...The city is hot and I have no problem tackling some sylvan splendor."

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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