THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT: A Retrospective by Joel Copling

Rating in Stars: **** (out of ****)
Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams
Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
MPAA Rating: R (for language)
Running Time: 1:21
Release Date: 07/14/99 (limited)

It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.
— Albus Dumbledore in 
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

We fear the silent darkness because it seems such an unnatural thing; we fear the noises that penetrate it, not because of the potential source of those noises, but because the unnaturalness is now layered on top of itself. A bear in the dark woods is far less frightening than the suggestion of the bear in the dark woods. Alfred Hitchcock once posited that suspense was a bomb placed underneath a table, refusing to explode far past the point at which it would, for the purpose of drama, comfortably explode. The bomb itself is secondary: What frightens is the mere suggestion, and if you doubt this, think about the adage regarding yelling, “Fire,” in a crowded place.

The Blair Witch Project applies that thesis to yet another source, layering the unnaturalness threefold: We are also frightened (sometimes in a playful way, it is true) by ghost stories. Writers/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez concoct quite the corker. Stories are told of an ancient town in Maryland known as Blair that was discovered abandoned and renamed Burkittsville and of a woman who lived there before being condemned for witchcraft. Since her own vanishing, disappearances and gruesome murders have followed. The early parts of the film detail the legend through faux interviews with the townsfolk of Burkittsville in precisely the anecdotal fashion shared by all ghost stories.

Myrick and Sánchez’ method introduces a fourth bit of layering to the unnaturalness by choosing to frame the story from the point-of-view of a documentary crew investigating the local legend. Heather (Heather Donohue) is the host and leader of a school project. Josh (Joshua Leonard) is the cameraman. Mike (Michael C. Williams) is the sound guy. They are the only primary characters we see as they interview the townsfolk, including a particular woman who saw the Blair Witch up close and somehow survived to tell about it, and then head into the Black Hills woods toward the campsite where, in the 19th century, five men were ritualistically murdered.

In the years since the film’s release, the number of so-called “found footage” films has increased, so that the method now effectively leads a sub-genre within horror. Here, in one of the first examples of the method, is a film that would not work without it. The intimacy of Neal Fredericks’s camera works to dig into the psychology of three young adults who entered into a situation far beyond their ability to control it, and by doing so, he makes the audience a participant in the terror. A member of the group goes missing, his screaming for help useless when the others cannot locate him. At some point, they find they’ve gone in a circle. The most frightening aspect of the film is its rising psychological terror, causing anxiety, panic attacks, and even something near a mental breakdown.

Eventually a more traditional kind of horror must be introduced, as two among the trio enter an ancient house with ties to this legend. What does transpire will not be revealed here for those who haven’t seen the film, but the filmmakers leave much — nearly everything — to the imagination. The audience does not need to know what happened, because, again, the suggestion is far more horrifying than being shown what happened. The performances, especially Donohue’s, are exceptional at conveying a sense of deteriorating sanity. They help to make The Blair Witch Project a positively, desperately, relentlessly horrifying experience, and that’s before the haunted-house tour.

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