Blair Witch Scares
Witch Reality Smart,low-budget and appealingly ragtag, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's TheBlair Witch Project is something I've been looking for for 20 years: a horrorfilm that doesn't depend on ostentatious gore or special effects. Relying onseveral unusual strategies for fright, it's one of those films you're sure toenjoy more the less you know about it in advance, so consider this fair warningto set aside this review-and all others-till after you've seen it. When I first encounteredthe film at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I had the impression that muchof the large audience, which was composed mostly of young French filmgoers ratherthan critics, was in just the right state of credulous ignorance. That is, theytook Blair Witch for what its opening titles say it is: an assembly offootage left behind by three young filmmakers who disappeared in rural Marylandin 1994 while shooting a documentary about a folkoric figure called the Blair Witch. Of course, the film is actually fictional, but for enjoyment's sake you'rebest thinking of it as real, and one of its chief achievements lies in makingthat creepily easy to do-even if you're as clued in as most people will be bythe time press reports and buzz reach their saturation points, the movie seducesyou into at least a partial suspension of disbelief. Mostly, that's due to itspseudo-verite premise. Even people who haven't a clue as to the difference betweenHi-8 and Super-16 these days tend to know the difference between real and fakewhen it comes to documentaries, yet the most sophisticated and technically awareviewers are susceptible to the subliminal pull of formats that whisper "reality."In this sense, Blair Witch marks one of the most clever uses of the faux-documentaryapproach that has had a sporadic commercial presence since the success of 1984'sSpinal Tap: Not only does the film adroitly play on the credence we givefootage that has a documentary-like appearance, it also jibes with our erroneoussense of controlling reality by controlling representations of it. You mightsay, in the latter regard, that it's a cheeky rebuke to the idiocies of social-constructionisttheory: In its universe, the people with the cameras, the books and the controllingnarrative aren't the ones who rule-they're the ones who're lulled toward theirdoom because they think they do. The tale's three protagonists,though, are unlikely representatives of technological arrogance. In fact, they'reunlikely as anything but ordinary, twentysomething film-geek slackers, whichmakes them perfect for their roles here. Heather (Heather Donahue) is the onemaking the film, for which she's signed on two helpers: Josh (Joshua Leonard),a blond hippie-collegiate type, wields a rented 16 mm camera; Mike (MichaelWilliams), a standard-issue sound guy, carries a portable DAT recorder. Heatherhas a Hi-8 video camera-for making a "making of" movie of her owndoc-and Blair Witch intercuts her color footage and Josh's black-and-white. We're never told exactlywhy Heather is making her documentary, but a school project would be a goodguess. We're also not told the relations between the characters before the story,but it seems that Heather and Josh know each other somewhat while Mike is atechnoid for hire. Blair Witch opens with Heather and Josh cranking uptheir cameras before going to pick up Mike (who lives at home; he yells goodbyeto his mom as he leaves). The three then repair to a supermarket and merrilyload up on marshmallows and other supplies suitable for a couple of days inthe woods. The setting is Marylandand the trio's first stop is the small town of Burkittsville, formerly knownas Blair and the source of the Blair Witch legend. What is the Blair Witch legend?Well, it's interesting that the film doesn't make that overwhelmingly clear.(If you're interested in knowing the details, check out the website the BlairWitch gang has used, very successfully thus far, to promote their movie:www.blairwitch.com.) It seems to have started back in the late 18th centurywith the disappearance of seven children, for which a local woman was blamed.A book published in the early 19th century kept the story alive and other nefariousthings kept happening, right down to the 1940s when a man who killed and disemboweledseveral children claimed he was doing it at the bidding of an old woman's ghost.Might that ghost still walk? Heather and crew start offby interviewing local residents, all of whom seem to know of the legend evenif their comments, a bit confusingly, touch on different aspects of its longhistory. (These interviews may seem like basic scene-setting, but you shouldpay close attention: One of them contains information that's crucial to understandingthe film's ending.) Afterward, in search of other, more remote geographic pointsassociated with the tale, the three filmmakers park Josh's car on a rural road, hoist their backpacks and equipment and head off into the woods. "And they were neverheard from again..." Which gives the film, from then on, the chilly allureof a memento mori, home-movie style. For a couple of days, the three wanderin the woods, taking in the little there is to be seen. There are fart jokesin the tent at night; nothing weirder. Then they begin to glom on to the realitythat they're lost. Heather thinks she knows where they are, via their compassand map, but it becomes apparent that she doesn't. Another night passes. Thenanother. They keep walking. Nerves get frayed, angry accusations start beinghurled. The guys are especially pissed at Heather when she keeps filming duringthe increasingly testy discussions of their predicament. The first tangible weirdnesstakes the form of little piles of rocks that appear outside their tent one morning.Did they not notice them as they were setting up the tent the night before?How is that possible? Then come the strange sounds outside the tent at night.And then, more dramatically, the place where they find large, totem-like figuressuspended in the trees. "No redneck is this creative," says one ofthe guys, stunned at the dawning possibility that there's something-someone-verywarped out there, toying malevolently with three would-be documentarians. Like other good faux-documentaries,Blair Witch cannily integrates improvised acting into a scripted framework.The film's directors reportedly even sent the three cast members off on theirown in the woods, with decreasing food supplies and only sporadic contact withthe actual crew, in order to approximate the conditions of their fictional ordeal.Whatever the technique, it worked. The film's progress makes it seem like thecharacters are really getting hungrier, dirtier and-especially-edgier with eachpassing day. Near the end, their hair-trigger hysteria feels very like the actualthing. Of course the actors also deserve credit here, too. Perfectly cast, theyseem so much like the real articles that it's hard to think of them as anythingbut these lost and eventually very scared kids. The film's method of shootingadds to its insinuating effect. If the use of a documentary style mainly aimsat eliciting our suspension of disbelief, it also has its own offbeat expressiveness.Heather's material, like much that's shot by camcorders, is very loose and fluid,with framing that varies constantly and spontaneously. Sometimes the camera'spointing at the person she's talking to, sometimes it's panning around fitfully,sometimes it's pointed at her boots. Besides making the viewer more dependentthan usual on sound for basic information (its creative and very subtle useof sound is one of the film's most ingenious aspects), this gives the cameraworka steadily mounting emotional force that pays off in the final reel, when thefrenzied images rocket toward an almost-beautiful abstraction even as they unmistakablyconvey the terror of the people running the cameras. I suppose the film couldbe criticized for its plotting, in the sense that more twists and turns andstrange incidents could have been packed into its 90 minutes and thereby madefor a more thoroughly gripping package. As it is, there are moments when it'spossible to grow bored and reflect that the story's a bit more threadbare thanneed be. But the filmmakers' credo seems to be less-is-more, and if this isthe price, I'm happy to pay it. One of the things that's so refreshing aboutBlair Witch, after all, is it that avoids so much of what you would expect,and that means even if you're expecting a quirkily unconventional horror filmabout glib twentysomethings. For instance, besides briefnods to Gilligan's Island and The Wizard of Oz, its dialogue hasvirtually none of the pop-culture referencing that's become a cliched crutchfor screenwriters lately. Likewise, the characters don't go off on tangentsabout their own histories or scary things they've read or even the Blair Witch.Everything remains very focused on the here and now: what's this thing, where'sthe map, how do we get out of here. Likewise, the whole issue of a woman beingin control of the project is a huge, fascinating part of the story's subtext,yet it's neither stressed nor overworked. For leaving so much to theviewer's imagination and intelligence, the film deserves some kind of award(which won't, perhaps, take the form of a huge box office: This is one of thosefilms that make "cult favorite" an honorable term). We can only hope that its example will be emulated. With late-70s fright fests like Carrieand Halloween (if any single film changed the genre, it was probablythis one), the horror film seemed to lose the adult sophistication and exquisitesuggestiveness it had attained in films like Jack Clayton's The Innocentsand Robert Wise's The Haunting (the ill-omened remake of which arriveslater this month); what came thereafter was a glut of guilty teen sex punishedby knife-wielding maniacs abetted by an ever-increasing arsenal of garish effects.If the genre's more subtle possibilities went underground at that time, BlairWitch brings them back to light more convincingly than any film since SissySpacek took her famous blood bath. Ultimately, what makes thefilm so compelling is the way it intertwines ideas of naturalism, the supernaturaland nature. The latter has been a theme in American literature since there wassuch a thing, and Blair Witch's ancestry surely includes some of thespookier tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. There's no "bad woman" hidingout in the heart of nature, is there? And even if there were, she could be conqueredby a good woman armed with cameras and other instruments of modern rationalityand intrusiveness, right? Guess again, says the film."It's very hard to get lost in America these days, and it's even harderto stay lost," remarks Heather at one point, lamenting her plight and notstopping to wonder if maybe America itself is lost. If so, the new wildernessis the technological reality we've constructed to replace nature, a realitythat points to the one irony that undercuts The Blair Witch Project-afew years hence, no one will believe that kids like these would go into thewoods without a cell phone.
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