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With all of the practice it’s had, and with all of the money and technology at its disposal, it would seem that Hollywood should know by now how to scare the piss out of audiences any time it wants to. But its financial dependency on the people who grease its wheels has made it too timid to really shock or terrify its customers – to really mess with them – even though, by all indications, that’s exactly what the customers are dying for. So when a movie finally comes along that looks like it isn’t going to treat its audience like children, it’s more than merely welcomed: it quickly becomes the thing that movie buffs pin their hopes on. Now, even more than Stanley Kubrick’s final movie, The Blair Witch Project is the film that a lot of people are aching to see because they think it might violate them in a responsible way – the precise thing that Hollywood movies don’t do anymore.
The premise of Blair Witch is sadistic in its simplicity. Three film students backpack into the wooded hills of Maryland to shoot a documentary about a legendary witch rumored to have once roamed the area. They are never heard from again, but a year later the footage they shot during the final days of their lives is discovered. That footage, without preamble (save for a brief title card) or epilogue, is the movie that we are watching. And what we see are three young people who, initially carried along by their ambition and enthusiasm, are pushed to the outer limits of fatigue and terror as they gradually realize that they are being hunted down.
Blair Witch works on the nervous system by fragmenting reality in a lot of clever ways. Except for a few short sequences from the faux documentary, the film has no controlled set-ups or lighting, and the footage switches willy-nilly between 16 millimeter and Hi8, between black-and-white and color, and between different times of day. The narrative is riddled with elisions created by the kids arbitrarily turning the cameras off and on, and the framing is off-center as it often is when someone tries to film and look at the same thing simultaneously.
This smudged way of communicating suffuses the entire movie – everything bleeds away into uncertainty. The three major characters are presented to us exactly as we see people on the street, with no backstory or fanciful quirks, but just as embodiments of their current mood. Even the climax is seen from a wincing perspective, leaving us to puzzle out its meaning after the lights come up. This is all to the good, just as it’s also good that so many formulas of conventional cinema have been replaced with a dark poetry. When the kids enter the woods, no wide landscape shot or musical flourish announces that the adventure is officially underway. We only see the melancholy image of their empty automobile parked on the side of the road, growing smaller and smaller as the young filmmakers move away from it forever.
This is all very nice, but it begs the larger question: Is The Blair Witch Project as scary as everyone says it is? To my way of thinking, it really isn’t. It kept me keyed up, but more from the anticipation of terror than from terror itself. The dread that the movie engenders plateaus too early, and stays flat for too long, for it to really be effective. After a while, the ragtag scenes start to seem like snapshots that have fallen out of a scrapbook; they don’t build on each other, and too many of them only repeat what’s come just before or just after.
Directors Michael Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez may have ingeniously circumvented their financial limitations, but they couldn’t do anything about the limits on their imagination. The objects that stand in for the witch’s presence – the piles of rocks, the stick figures hanging from tree limbs – simply have no resonance. They’re more whimsical than disturbing, like the leftovers from a Girl Scouts jamboree. We never get the one shot of them that would make us stop breathing at how eerie they are; we’re forced to take the characters’ word for it that they’re spooky.
Nor does it help things that Myrick and Sanchez violate their own ground-rules whenever it suits them. Blair Witch is wisely short on explanations, but when Heather dislodges a pile of rocks early in the movie, it’s hard not to think that we’re being played for suckers. The scene is thrown out like a fish to trained seals, the same way that the malarkey about the lamb-slaughter was thrown out in The Silence of the Lambs. Knowing that a lousy explanation is worse than no explanation at all, Myrick and Sanchez engage in some plausible deniability by providing an explanation to the people who need one while at the same time refusing to commit to it.
Similarly, when the kids are attacked in the dead of night, one of them has the presence of mind to grab a camera just so we can watch their panic-stricken rout. And, at an early point when the movie is still working, we’re perfectly willing to accept that anything could have caused an important map to disappear: carelessness, bad luck, even a witch. So when the movie’s most pragmatic character admits that he destroyed it because "it wasn’t doing any good," it’s nothing but a barefaced lie: not only has the map gotten the kids to exactly where they were going, the movie posits it as their sole hope for survival. Things like this require the same kind of excuse-making that all those dumb Hollywood thrillers force on their audiences. And when they’re combined with Blair Witch’s film-school humbug – be it an artsy-fartsy speech about "filtered reality" or the appearance of jump-cuts in supposedly raw footage – it’s enough to make you throw your hands up and say, "Fine, whatever."
Blair Witch is much more successful as an experiment in naturalism than it is as a horror film. Altman and Cassavetes never thought to convey emotion through a character running out of cigarettes; not even Huston communicated to more telling effect how fatiguing it is to be outdoors for day after day after day. And Heather Donahue’s shattering confessional stands like a signpost pointing the way for future directors to take if they’d rather move their audiences than indulge in sophomoric games.
The Blair Witch Project’s Borgesian production methods, incredible word-of-mouth, and increasing transformation into merchandising vehicle assure it a place in film history, if nothing else as one of the premiere cult films. People don’t seem to mind that the web-site makes literal and pedestrian everything that the movie leaves to the imagination, and with comic books and a novel about it on the way, Blair Witch may well become the Star Wars of independent cinema. It’s just too bad that the movie isn’t half as diabolical as its marketing plan.
– Tom Block