Blair Witch Project, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/25/06 21:47:22

"I'm so glad this hipster-cult crap is relatively forgotten today."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

If "Star Wars Episode I" was the geek event of summer '99, "The Blair Witch Project" was the hipster event -- the movie you had to see, not necessarily because you wanted to see it, but because you wanted to be able to say you'd seen it.

As a lifelong horror fan, and one who so recently suffered through The Haunting, I was more than eager to subject myself to what has been described -- okay, hyped -- as the scariest movie since Halloween and The Exorcist. What I got instead was a neat premise (and not an original one, either), one or two mildly creepy moments, a final shot designed to send 'em out buzzing, and a whole lot of bickering in between.

"In October of 1994," reads the ad copy, "three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found." The movie we are watching purports to be that footage, though I trust that by now everyone knows that it is actually a work of fiction -- the work of three improvising actors entrusted with camera equipment in the woods, under the remote supervision of two directors who figured out a plausible context in which to make a feature-length film on video and 16mm.

A great deal of thought went into The Blair Witch Project, and what's most disappointing is how little of it shows up in the film itself. As the three-person documentary crew -- director Heather (Heather Donahue), cameraman Josh (Joshua Leonard), and sound man Mike (Michael Williams) -- stumble around the bleak Maryland woods, a sense of strangeness and dread gathers in the repetitive shots of the ugly leaves and tangled branches, which look the same from scene to scene, adding to the characters' disorientation. They are pursuing a supernatural legend in a dead forest that looks as if it would prefer to stay dead. Blair Witch has a terrific grainy ambiance, but that's about all it has -- it's all suggestion and no payoff, like a softcore porn video -- and when the characters are lost and shrieking at each other, one's patience begins to wear thin.

An improv movie like this lives or dies on the strength of the performances, and each of the actors here has some good moments -- generally when they're quiet. Heather Donahue, for example, has been encouraged to play Heather as a shrill bitch a lot of the time, so when she's scared shitless into guilty silence -- she knows she's largely responsible for getting the crew lost -- she's much more effective than when she's shrieking in terror or rage. But sometimes you miss the structure that a fully scripted horror movie can offer, and the actors often aren't up to creating their own dialogue on the fly. When the map goes missing, Josh delivers this statement: "Heather, this is so not cool. Heather, this is so not cool." Her response: "I know, it's not cool." And the performers really run "fuck" into the ground; I realize that frightened, exhausted people may revert to repetitive four-letter vocabulary, but after a while it seems like a failure of imagination on the actors' part. Conversely, the most famous scene -- Heather's anguished apology into her camera -- sounds totally pre-scripted and inauthentic. (And it's framed a little too artfully, as if Heather knew her terror-stricken half-visage would become the movie's marketing icon.)

The filmmakers go for realism whenever possible (the characters, for instance, are realistically irritating at times), which may be a mistake. Blair Witch rides bumpily on its premise that what we're watching is real, yet since we know it's not, all we can do is judge how well it has been faked. We become connoisseurs, not emotionally involved in the characters' plight. The movie feels like an improvisatory exercise, not a pure shot of ungovernable horror, and its chills amount to the usual spooky omens (ooh, a bunch of sticks!!) and odd rustlings in the dead of night. It feels like the work of clever people dabbling in horror -- a calling card, a riff, a watercooler topic for a few weeks after its release.

Horror movies may be so cluttered and ironic now that some people may take this film's minimalist, back-to-basics method as a form of integrity, which in a way it is. But the end result isn't very satisfying. Most of the movie, in fact, deals with mundane fears like getting lost in the woods; the filmmakers devote more time to arguments over who lost the map than to supernatural terror. And much of it is far too high-pitched, as if foulmouthed hysteria would be enough to frighten us. Some have said that if we didn't know Blair Witch was fake, it really would be as terrifying as many critics are claiming. But who ever thought Halloween or Night of the Living Dead were really happening? Those movies scared us because, well, they were scary, not because they were cleverly faked to seem real. Blair Witch is a labored gimmick with too much "realism" and too little inventiveness.

In an early scene in 1981's An American Werewolf in London (now there's a great horror movie), two college students are lost on the foggy Moors, surrounded by blood-freezing growling noises; one of them clenches his teeth and says quietly, "Ah, shit, David, what is that?" That brief, understated scene does everything that this movie tries, and mostly fails, to do in 86 minutes.

"The Blair Witch Project" may bother those who are easily freaked out, and it may dissuade a few campers, but the lofty talk in the press of its being a new horror masterpiece is nonsense. That's a burden of hype this scrawny cinema-verité stunt can't carry.

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