Wednesday, July 14, 1999

The Blair Witch Project

Posted By on Wed, Jul 14, 1999 at 12:00 AM

The Blair Witch Project arrives in town with such a burden of buzz that one fears for the fate of this intriguing and clever little film.

The movie has a backstory much larger than itself, one delineated in a Sci-Fi Channel special and elaborated on at the film’s Web site. But if the effectiveness of finally viewing Blair Witch is somewhat blunted by stoked expectations, the filmmakers – Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who wrote, directed and edited – have only themselves to blame. They’ve created a monster and it isn’t on the screen.

The premise of the movie is that it’s a recovered document consisting entirely of color video and black-and-white 16mm film footage, which is all that’s left of a three-person film crew which disappeared in the backwoods of Maryland while making a documentary on the infamous Blair Witch, the supposed malignant force behind a string of child murders in the 1940s. The young team of documentarians consists of the director Heather (Heather Donahue), her cameraman Josh (Joshua Leonard) and soundman Mike (Michael Williams).

There’s no evidence that any of the three actually believes in the Blair Witch and the first part of the film has a lightly comic tone. Heather, who wields the video cam and rather compulsively records the making of the documentary, is gung-ho and certain that there’s a story here to film, while her accomplices display the surly humor of two guys giving up their slacker weekend. A few initial interviews with some locals seem vaguely promising, but it’s not until the threesome gets lost in the wood that things turn serious, nerves get stretched, reality becomes blurred and the supernatural impinges.

One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is that it’s so old-fashioned it seems fresh – its innovative technique only barely disguises its neo-classical intention of being a scary tale which derives its shivers from suggestion rather than shock. Like a preratings horror film, it uses reticence to build suspense – only now reticence is a calculated choice, not a cultural imperative.

No doubt part of the reason that the film has affected some viewers so intensely is because it requires them to fill in a lot of blank spaces, to exercise a perceptive muscle which, especially among younger viewers, may have grown flabby from neglect.

But even those who can absorb Blair Witch without working up a metaphysical sweat will find it satisfyingly tense. Just try to ignore the hype: This isn’t the reinvention of the genre; it’s an assertion of its oldest tradition. It’s a movie which gives you just enough information to provoke you into frightening yourself.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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