The Blair Witch Project (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project” scares its viewers by showing a bunch of trees, a pile of rocks, a river, a black screen, and a whole lot of suggestion. It is an excellent example of a horror film showing nothing overtly scary and yet it possesses the ability to terrify because all the necessary pieces are set in place. It relies on the idea that what we can come up with in our heads can be far more frightening than an actor wearing a mask, costume, or makeup. The brilliance of this found footage film, believed by many to be real upon its release, is that it functions as a mirror of what we find to be scary.
Three film students—Heather (Heather Donahue), Josh (Joshua Leonard), and Mike (Michael C. Williams)—venture into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland to shoot a documentary about the so-called Blair Witch who supposedly bewitched a man to kidnap and murder seven children in the 1940s. That man’s home is rumored to be located somewhere deep in the forest, but no one really knows where it is exactly because over the years residents have learned to stay away from the area. The expository sequences of this project is handled beautifully. The most ordinary-looking locals are interviewed, and they project a most convincing realism. Notice the way they sound. It is amazing that although they are non-actors, it does not feel as though they have memorized a single line. In addition, they do not seem to be aware of the camera which works because they do not feel the need to act as someone else other than themselves.
Some of them believe the stories surrounding the fabled Blair Witch. And a few of them do not. Because we are provided a spectrum of opinions, the implication is that it is up to us to decide what to believe based on what Heather, Josh, and Mike will experience in the woods. And because somewhere in the back of our heads we hold onto this idea, we are inspired to pay very close attention. For a good while “nothing much happens,” so we lean a little bit closer to the screen. Perhaps we are simply missing some of the finer details. And when something finally does happen, it is like a fire alarm; we are jolted into paying attention, mouth agape, eyes as big as saucers. But since the thing to be feared is never front and center, we struggle and attempt to make sense of what is really happening. The cycle continues.
This movie should be required viewing for all aspiring horror filmmakers. Remove the Blair Witch angle completely and this becomes a story of young people being lost in the woods. What is more terrifying than the idea of walking around in circles and experiencing a slow death? The trio have limited food and water. But they have plenty of frustration and anger. The map doesn’t seem to be useful. The compass points that they’re going south and yet they appear to be walking around in circles. What if you can never go home, that you know you’re going to die but won’t get a chance to say goodbye to your loved ones? This is not a one-dimensional horror film.
Most disturbing about “The Blair Witch Project” is not the burial grounds, stick figures hanging off trees, or even the sounds of children’s voices in the dead of night. It is the mental anguish that Heather, Josh, and Mike undergo. They yell and scream at each other, even get into physical altercations at times. But we never lose track of the fact that they don’t actually hate one another. They’re just so helpless and afraid. Rats in a maze. At one point we are inspired to ask, “What might I do in that situation?” while taking into account that it probably doesn’t matter. Perhaps a person’s fate is sealed once one decides to step into the deep, dark woods.