Ooooh! A scary one, eh, kids?
A creepy walk in the woods with imagination and terror
Click on the images below to see larger versions and see who is in them.
Review by John Orr
For those who were afraid of the dark as children, but who had forgotten that feeling as adults, "The Blair Witch Project" will bring back the sensation, with interest accrued.
And it's not even that the film is overwhelmingly scary in the theater; it's that when you go home after seeing it, and turn off the lights to go to sleep, chances are good your mind's eye will keep replaying the last few minutes of this stunning film. That's when you'll remember what it was like to be seven years old and worried about things that go thump in the dark. You may want to keep a flashlight at hand.
You know, just in case.
The set-up of the film is simple: Three student filmmakers go into the woods at Burkittsville, Maryland, to shoot a documentary about the Blair witch, who supposedly killed some travelers hundreds of years ago, and maybe was responsible for murdering some children as late as the 1940s.
The filmmakers disappear.
A year later, their footage is found.
The film is that footage.
Indeed, filmmakers Daniel Myrich and Edwardo Sanchez did a brilliantly simple thing to make this movie: They found three unknown actors -- Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams -- gave them an $800 digital video camera, a lightweight 16mm movie camera and a DAT sound recorder, and sent them to Burkittsville to make the movie.
So, the three actors are the film crew -- actors, cinematographers and sound. Everything in the movie -- except the titles and credits -- is footage they shot.
With Heather mostly shooting video and Josh mostly shooting 16mm black-and-white film, we seen them meet for the trip, and we see them interview some of the locals about the Blair witch stories -- including a scary lady named Mary who tells a harrowing tale of having met the Blair witch herself, long ago -- and we see them hike into the woods.
They park their car and hike, three young people who want to have a weekend adventure and maybe further their film careers a bit, then return to their real lives by Monday -- when the borrowed DAT and 16mm camera are due back.
They find "coffin rock," a bit of granite in a river bed where, supposedly, long ago, several travelers' bodies had been found, murdered. Before authorities could investigate, the bodies disappeared, leaving behind only bits of blood.
Heather does a fine, confident stand-up for the 16mm, for the documentary.
And they find some odd piles of flat stones. (OK, I am reminded of Bill Murray in "Ghostbusters" -- "No human would stack books like that.")
And they find some stick sculptures hanging in trees, which is when things begin to get a bit scary. Coffin rock might have sat there for hundreds of years, but these odd signs are of lighter stuff, and more recent origin.
That night they camp, but are awakened by noises in the woods around their tent. They scrabble to get up, and shine their camera lights into the wood, seeing nothing. In the morning, they find three new piles of the flat stones that form a triangle with their tent in the middle.
From then on, things get worse.
They get lost; they walk in circles in the woods; they are starving, exhausted, angry with each other. Their nights are terrible; we hear a lot -- from the DAT and the video tape -- but see nothing but sticks and shadow, or just blackness. Maybe early in this trip they could all be John Wayne and act the hero, but after days of hiking and terrifying nights, they are all reduced to primal, childlike fears.
End of film.
The final few minutes of the 16mm and video footage are among the most tense and effective scary footage I have ever seen. The overall movie is not as scary as, say, "The Exorcist" or "The Shining," but seldom have I been more haunted after a film as I have been by those last moments of "The Blair Witch Project."
The film taps into those fears we may have had as children -- the scary things we can't identify, out there in the dark. In this film, the scary things win.
The performances of the two guys are good; not brilliant, but good.
But Heather Donahue has an amazing, powerful scene that is simply astounding, and is deserving of any awards that can be bestowed on an actor. It is at night, when they know something is out to get them, they haven't been able to figure out how to escape that something, and they probably haven't even the slimmest chance to survive. Sitting in the tent, terrified, she turns the video camera on herself and sobs out a wretched, heartfelt apology, to everyone and their mothers, for having led her two crewmates and herself into this terrible situation.
It is an excruciating scene. We see her eyes, we see her nose (wondering, "Is that blood? Is it a booger? What the hell is that?), we see her tears. It's as powerful a moment as I have seen in a movie for a long time. Wowsers.
The final scenes could be described here without taking much from your experience if you go see this film; they are visceral, powerful, skin-crawling. But, still, I will leave them to you to see in a theater.
Just this word of advice: Go buy a nightlight on the way to the theater, so you will have it in hand later that night, when you try to go to sleep.
Theater or video?
The scary creepiness of "Blair Witch" should be just as effective at home. Some people are nauseated by the constant motion of the hand-held cameras in the theater; maybe that will be reduced when watching on a small screen at home.
What an amazing feat by these guys Sanchez and Myrich: They make a movie on a beer-and-peanuts budget, take it to Sundance where it is the rave, then sit back and let the distribution offers roll in. The film is a wow at Cannes.
They settle on Artisan Entertainment to distribute, which proceeds to build them some kick-ass web sites (www.artisanent.com/blairwitch, for instance) and otherwise helps develop interest in the film.
As I write this, "The Blair Witch Project" has been playing in fewer than 30 theaters nationwide -- it opens wide on July 30 -- but those theaters have been filling every seat for every showing, for the most part, getting per-screen numbers seen this summer only by "Phantom Menace."
Look around on the web ... there is backstory and more story on the Artisan sites ... and if you look up the movie and the three main actors on the Internet Movie Data Base (us.imdb.com), you see that the film description includes the word "documentary" and that the three actors each only have one film listed -- "The Blair Witch Project." I have spoken with people who saw it and swear it was real.
It all adds to the mystique and the excitement of this fascinating filmic experience. Is it real? Is it Memorex?
Well ... I don't know if it was Memorex, but I know it wasn't real -- all three actors are still alive, and looking for other acting jobs.
They were out there in the woods, but they had global positioning electronics to help them find each set-up spot for the film, and those noises that woke them in the middle of the night were provided by Sanchez and Myrich, who had been following them at a distance.
Still, it is an amazing film, and my hat's off to Sanchez and Myrich and Artisan Entertainment for making "The Blair Witch Project" such a phenomenon.
It reminds of Orson Welles' famous radio broadcast on Halloween night, 1938, "Invasion from Mars" (based on "War of the Worlds"). Although the folks at Mercury Theater supposedly made it clear that it was a radio play -- and even broke for commercials -- lots of people thought Martians were really invading New Jersey (as if!), and a certain amount of panic ensued. Since "The Blair Witch Project" started becoming a word-of-mouth and word-of-web phenomenon, Burkittsville has been invaded by people looking for the witch. And by TV news crews.
As I watched the film, cinematic cynic I am, I was thinking, "Sheesh, these guys don't know anything about self-defense in the woods! Why, if I was out there, I would do this, I would do that ... bla-bla-bla." And, after the film, a guy sitting behind me said, "I want my money back!"
But, that night, as I tried to go to sleep, for the first time in decades I had that frisson in the dark that I sometimes had as a child; and I wondered if, too, that guy who'd wanted his money back finally also wondered what was going bump in his night.