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The Blair Witch Project

review by Anthony D.

 

Rated R

Studio: Artisan

Running Time: 87 minutes

Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Williams

Directed by Eduardo Sanchez & Daniel Myrick

Retail Price: $24.98

Features: Commentary by directors Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, Production notes, Theatrical trailer(s), TV spots, Includes both the theatrical film, The Blair Witch Project, (87 min.) and the TV documentary, Curse of the Blair Witch (approx. 44 min.), "Newly discovered" footage, Animated interactive menus, DVD ROM features, exclusive web site access...to the map, excerpts from the dossier, excerpts from the comic book.

Specs: 1.33:1 Full Frame, 2.0 Dolby Digital English, Chapter Search

Described as a horror movie, yet containing NO violence; also depicted as a thriller, it is NOT an edge of your seat experience. What "The Blair Witch Project" purports to be is not what it is either: In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkitsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary...A year later their footage was found. So what can what say of a film that even its filmmakers don't know how to catergorize?

Yes, in "The Blair Witch Project," three student filmmakers do go off into the woods near Burkitsville, Maryland to film a documentary about the local legend of "the Blair Witch." Heather(Heather Donahue), Josh(Joshua Williams) and Michael(Michael Williams) are armed with cameras and other filmmaker accoutrements, and little or no sense of direction. Before getting lost, however, they meet up with a few locals with fascinating tales of "the Blair Witch." It seems that this witch has a fondness for children: as objects of torture, and possibly dinner! The Blair Witch is a relic from the 17th Century who was banished from the town of Blair, tied up in the woods, and left to the elements in the midst of a deadly winter...and yet come spring, no remains were found...ever. According to the legends, The Blair Witch has returned in spectral form, every so often, to extract her revenge on the people of Blair through violent acts directed at children. Some villagers who have claimed to have seen the witch herself are portrayed as being one step closer to madness than Carrie White's mother, Margaret! Others however, are old enough to remember the time in the 1940's when a well-known hermit, walked into the town, and exclaimed, "It is over." The hermit then told the townspeople that he had been "visited" by a woman who forced him to take youngsters into his house, hide them in the basement, and in a key plot element: force one child to stand in the corner, facing the wall, while he (Parr) killed another child, then another, then another until the total body count was seven. Parr was tried and convicted, and put to death; but the legend of "The Blair Witch" lived on until nearly fifty years later when Heather decided to film a documentary on that legend for a class project.

Unfortunately for Heather her dream project is never realized. During the seven days depicted in "The Blair Witch Project," Heather and her two-man crew manage to become disoriented by the terrain, disarmed by each other's failures, awestruck by a forest glen, decorated with stick-figure totems, surprised by "gifts" of sticks and bones, as well as being helplessly pursued by strange cries in the night. The cries cease when Joshua disappears, but are replaced with a voice similar to Joshua's calling the names of Heather and Michael. They follow the sound of Joshua's voice to an abandoned house in the woods where they find...?

Since "The Blair Witch Project" "pretends" to be the film shot by Heather, Mike and Josh, and found one year later, "The Blair Witch Project" has no choice but to end in that basement, with a shot that will baffle a few viewers, infuriate a lot more...but present a diamond in the rough to viewers who have managed to forget the pretense, and allow the film's "throw-away" lines to have meaning. The terror of "The Blair Witch Project" is there, but like a diamond, it has to be mined.

Filmed with a budget of merely $22,000, cast with unknown actors, and opening with a truly web-based audience, "The Blair Witch Project" came into theaters with high expectations, and for a while, critical acclaim (ah, how quickly they turn!) And became one of the top-grossing films of 1999. In terms of its budget, surely it would rate as the top-grossing film of 1999. Wisely, just before the Blair Witch backlash could reach its zenith, Artisan Home Entertainment released its Special Edition DVD of "The Blair Witch Project."

"The Blair Witch Project," being shot on various formats, 16mm, HI8 video, all hand-held, looks as good on dvd as it did in theaters - - which, is both a good thing and a bad thing. Since it is meant to look like a student film, the good news is that it does. Because it looks like a student film, with nausea-inducing hand-held camera movement that could give the viewer a worse case of whiplash than a pan-and-scanned copy of "The Sound of Music," well that's the bad news. Can I say that colors are stable? Sure, when they are supposed to be? Are the colors vibrant? No, being shot in the woods in the fall, colors are bland, but stable. The use of black and white photography is rendered well, if deliberately on the soft side. To be perfectly blunt, "The Blair Witch Project's" digital transfer - -in its variety of formats (including window-boxing), looks nearly like a low-budget horror film, from the Roger Corman clique of fillmakers.

If you're looking for a DVD that will test the limits of your sound system, keep looking. "The Blair Witch Project's" sound design keeps with the pretense of being a student film - - so of course, the Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track delivers just that. There were times when at the very least, I could decipher the eery sounds that the trio were reacting to, and one hundred percent of the time I could hear every use of that wonder police-ledger acronym, "For Unlawful Criminal Knowledge," which surely rates a place in the record books - - Brian DePalma's "Scarface" notwithstanding.

At least when Artisan promises a "Special Edition," they have the goods to back up their claim. The theatrical trailers and teasers are true teasers - - nothing is said about the plot, nor the actors. Brief scenes, mostly black and white, which make the viewer think that "The Blair Witch Project" MIGHT just be something they want to see. A surprise, for me anyway, is the neither smarmy nor snide "Director's Commentary" track, which is scene-specific through out the film. It took me aback because these guys spent so little, tortured their improvatory actors and succeeded in making an entire nation aware of their little film, and yet, they could be so smooth, so savvy and a pleasure to listen to. Also included are a couple of Deleted Scenes, billed as "Newly Discovered Footage" which served no purpose to the film; Production Notes (text), Cast and Filmmakers (text, but for once acknowledges the fact that Heather, Michael and Joshua are really actors) and a text "Mythology."

The best of the Special Features, is the brilliant marketing ploy, "Curse of the Blair Witch" originally shown on The Sci-Fi Channel. This is a pseudo-documentary, expertly produced and directed about a myth that doesn't really exist. Tracing the history of this non-legend, proves to be enlightening and entertaining...even if it is only smoke and mirrors. Which brings this reviewer back to his feelings about the film called, "The Blair Witch Project."

It's all smoke and mirrors. Nothing more and nothing less. The filmmakers forced themselves into a corner with their brilliance. Let me clarify: the brilliance of "The Blair Witch Project" is not in the film itself, instead that spark of creativity is lit in the filmmakers' radical approach to The Blair Witch as a property. Myrick & Sanchez conceived a rural legend which gave birth to the twins, a website dedicated to all the legends of Burkittsville and "The Blair Witch Project" the film we are now discussing. One cannot banish one to cyberspace, and dispel the other to the silver (or home) screen - - they co-exist more as Siamese Twins than as fraternal twins, and must be recognized as being one and not two. And this is the film's fatal flaw: although many households in the world are now cyber-ready, an even greater amount is not, and therefore had no access to the marketing ploy that made "The Blair Witch Project" such a marvel. If I were not a cyberly-inclined kind of guy, and had never been aware of the Witch's website (which is an awesome site), my overall rating for the film would be incredibly lower. (I still give the film a low rating because, it presents me with a backstory that is much more interesting than the events of the film, three unsympathetic "characters"exploring, and breaking down the bonds of fellowship, who constantly harp and shriek at each other, and except for that final shot, fails to deliver a jolt to the system.) Because of the dichotomy that the film is, I would like to give it a higher rating, for, in its brief running time, it forced me to pay attention and to think. Not that there's anything wrong with thinking; but "The Blair Witch Project" asks far too much of its viewers to be a pleasurable experience. If you want us to like the unfortunate "characters," give them at least one redeeming feature. If you want us to be terrified, don't do it with sticks and bones. If you want us to be effected by the horrifying conclusion, at least give us a clue or two more that THIS is where the film is leading. ("The Sixth Sense" manages to do all of this, granted on a higher budget, and with a literate script).

For the record, I hold an appreciation for "The Blair Witch Project," which is not to say that I heartily recommend it. I do recommend it to people who will concentrate on it, and whom I know will "get" the ending...but I cannot recommend the film to casual viewers hoping to find a film that will do for camping what "Jaws" did for midnight swims in the ocean.

(3/5, NOT included in final score)

(3.5/5)

(2/5)

(4/5)

(3/5, NOT an average)

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