Blair Witch Project - Movie REVIEW
Article ID: 2443
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 5,337
Times Read: 36,909
Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: July 30th. 1999
Times Viewed: 36,909
Answer quickly: What is the most frightening film you have ever seen?
The Exorcist? Night of the Living Dead? The Shining?
The Omen? Rosemary's Baby? Alien?
In other words, it's been a while, hasn't it?
From fledgling film company Haxan Films (named for the Swedish 1920s classic Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages) comes an ingenious, subtle, wickedly-perplexing and much-hyped film you have all, no doubt, heard of by now. As you have heard the one-liner hooks trying to draw people in: "Does for camping what Jaws did for the beach" or "The anti-horror horror film."
The premise, briefly: three film students decide to shoot a short documentary about a local legendary figure, the Blair Witch. The legend goes something like this: in the late 18th Century, in the backwoods of Maryland, Elly Kedward is accused by local children of trying to suck their blood; she is banished by the townsfolk and presumably dies during a rough winter. Later that same year, half the town's children, along with Kedward's accusers, vanish from sight. The township of Blair is deserted by those fearing a curse. Burkittsville is soon after founded on that site. In the early 1800s, a young girl is reported missing; she returns, but one of the search parties sent to find her does not: the seven men are found ritually disemboweled and tied together at Coffin Rock in the woods. In the 1940s, seven children are brutally murdered by Rustin Parr, who confesses that "an old woman ghost" told him to do it. And on and on...a juicy and scary legend believed by many of Burkittsville's contemporary residents. So in 1994, Heather Donohue, Mike Williams and Joshua Leonard hike into the woods to make their film. They are never heard from again. Massive searches turn up nothing, and the case of their disappearance is declared unsolved.
One year later almost to the day they went missing (October 18"very near Samhain, when the veil between the worlds is thinnest), some archaeology students from the University of Maryland discover a duffel bag buried beneath the foundation of a hundred-year old house in the woods: the bag contains Heather's journal, rolls of film, videotapes, DAT tapes and recorder, and two cameras. They are determined to belong to the missing students. After two years of inconclusive research, the police turn over the film footage to Heather's mother, Angie Donohue, who commissions Haxan Films of Orlando, Florida to edit together this found footage, in an attempt to explain what happened. The result of that editing: The Blair Witch Project. The film released in theatres this summer shows three carefree kids who gradually become unhinged when they become lost in the woods, convinced they are being pursued by persons or forces unseen. In the first several days they generally have fun and enjoy their time in the wilderness. But when it becomes clear they are lost, and that they are being followed, things break down rapidly. Their food runs out, they lash out at one another, and mysterious sounds at night keep them all awake and terrified. By the sixth day, one of them is missing, and panic, hunger, and sleep deprivation have taken their toll.
Spooky, huh? Except it's not real. That is what makes this film so phenomenal: it is completely made up, and yet looks completely authentic. The production is highly unorthodox, and also bears some brief explanation here. The actors (whose real names are used) shot the film themselves, after getting brief lessons in "filmmaking." The documentary they were making was to be shot on black and white 16mm film, and the "making of" footage on color video. The "home-movie" look of the video footage is rough and jumpy, done with a hand-held camera"this is tough to watch for some film-goers who are not used to this cinema verité style. In fact, one theatre in Boston has reported a number of patrons becoming nauseous as a result of this visual characteristic; but other factors are also being suggested, such as sold-out crowds waiting in heat-wave temperatures and humidity only to enter the chill of air-conditioned movie theatre "comfort"; as well as sold-out shows forcing patrons to sit far closer to the screen than they normally might (this is poor theatre design).
The directors (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, both extremely cool and sweet guys), fans of TV shows like "In Search Of, " wanted their film to look like a "missing persons" news bulletin. The students interview local Burkittsville residents, some actors, some ordinary folks, and ask them about the legend. In one astoundingly-chilling example of accidental authenticity, a woman telling the story of Rustin Parr is holding her baby, and when the child hears the beginnings of the tale she moans "No, no, no!" and tries to cover her mother's mouth. To which the woman replies, "That's okay, I'm telling a scary story but it's not true, " then mouths for the camera (and for us) "It is true""a clever if unintentional aside on the film's fake documentary format. Heather Donohoe recently said in an Internet chat that she got chills when this happened, and it was certainly the first point in the film where I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up...not for the last time, though.
Sanchez and Myrick worked with a premise of three kids lost in the woods making a film, and the witch mythology arose from that premise (an earlier version of the story had a religious cult as the subject of the student film). The film's "script" was nonexistent--a series of notes for improvisation left by the directors, along with fresh film stock and minimal food rations. Seeking realism, the directors required the actors (three talented, resilient performers chosen from over 2000 who auditioned) to hike further each day on ever-decreasing amounts of sleep and food. Each night in the woods (a total of eight days of shooting in real time), the directors and crew staged "harrassments" and made noises outside the actors' tents"and left various clues (stone cairns, stick figures made of wood and twine hanging from trees) that were always a complete surprise to the actors. Fatigue, hunger and very real anticipation of scary events allowed for some incredibly authentic improvised performances.
Which points to the primary reason this film works so well: the actors' responses to what they see and hear is utterly natural. And much of what they hear is accompanied visually by what the actors see"that is, murky darkness lit at most by a flashlight or Coleman camping lantern. No creepy music score with a "don't go in the basement" feel; no fancy, eerie lighting making ghost-like shapes out of trees and boulders; no quick jump-cuts or shlocky techniques used to ill effect by most "real" horror films; above all, there is no on-camera violence and only minimal gore. And not once do we ever see a witch. Or a ghost. This is not visceral horror, but psychological terror at work here. Less is more, believe me. The students, the town's residents, the investigating authorities, and ultimately The Blair Witch Project's audience, are all able to imagine the entity which haunts the woods in any way they wish, because they never see anything to tell them otherwise. Isn't that the nature of fear? Simply not being sure what you are up against?
Witches (like me, maybe like you, too) are familiar with the powers inherent in unseen forces: magic is a shaping of energy, which is largely invisible. And witches often try to work with the unseen realms of spirit (or faery, or the undead, or the astral plane, call it what you will). And we know nature, for all its beauty, can be terrifying: its strength, its ruthlessness, its constant struggle for balance. Perhaps we, exploring what it is to be witches, tap into what others construct as the witch myth: they see the mean old hag in the woods, we see the healer who likes to live alone in nature. This archetype works on many levels and even "Unky Carl" Jung allows that it is embedded in our collective unconscious, even as it permeates literature and visual media. Heather, Mike and Josh did not see the witch as much more than legend, but certainly have their own arsenal of childhood images to contend with, and know the tales of murdered children are true. They are exploring the very area where the crimes took place with the belief that some form of that evil energy and entity remains: they wish to tap into it, especially Heather.
Viewers of the film who take the time to explore the vast mythology of the Blair Witch on the Internet, or through the Sci-Fi Channel's special "Curse of the Blair Witch, " may be better able to appreciate the context of this film and the beliefs the actors are bringing to it. On the film's official website (www.blairwitch.com), for example, one can read the first few pages of Heather's recovered journal. Actually penned by the actress Heather Donohue, writing in character, its jottings reflect the eagerness of this intelligent young woman to connect with Elly Kedward's spirit. Heather researched Neo-Paganism and modern Witchcraft in the hopes of understanding the continuity of magic and the ancient legacy of North American witchcraft folklore. She writes that she has been sending energy towards Elly for two years in preparation for this project; clearly she does not fear this benign old woman, but feels kinship with her.
The Sci-Fi Channel special suggests that Elly Kedward was misjudged, and accused by the children she was only trying to help. The filmmakers themselves have said that they think the so-called "curse" of the witch arose not because of Elly herself, but because some higher power deemed what happened to Elly such a great injustice, that the area's inhabitants were doomed to suffering. But even if all this is intended, there is a feeling in the film that the students are running as much from the spirit or ghost of the witch, as they are from whatever disturbed human beings are very likely stalking them. Near the end of their odyssey, when Heather asks Mike which way they should go, east or west (since they have been wandering off-trail for days), he asks "Which was worse, the Wicked Witch of the East or the Wicked Witch of the West?" and Heather replies "The Wicked Witch of the West was the bad one, " to which he replies, "Okay, let's go east."
Early on in the film, Heather makes little jokes about the witchy nature of the project: training the camera on a dead field mouse she asks "What killed this mouse? Witchcraft?" and later, roasting a weenie over the fire she says with mock horror-show melodrama: "Witches of old were roasted alive just like my Vienna sausage." The crew also jokes that, as they crack the slate for the first official filming of the project's 16mm footage, they should smear their blood on the slate. Though these instances may seem offensive or at least in poor taste to many modern witches, they also effectively foreshadow the deadly seriousness that descends later. Lost and terrorized, the three students are in no mood or position to see any humor in their situation, nor to take its supernatural possibilities lightly; in other words, they have come to believe that there may indeed be "something out there." But what?
Since the film's conceit is that the three students disappeared, it is probable that some monster or monsters of the flesh-and-blood variety got to them (I won't spoil any more of the film's revelations by expanding on that theory here). It is possible they were being followed by some unbalanced person or persons who truly believed they were being told by the Blair Witch to commit murder; as with Rustin Parr (many serial killers in fact blame their deeds on the orders of unseen spirits or voices). Once they find numerous stick-man fetishes dangling from trees, and Mike comments "No redneck is this creative" they have essentially decided that whoever is stalking them means business. But later events suggest that the students themselves also allow the possibility that something utterly mysterious is after them...they start to believe in the Witch, and to believe that that Witch is evil. And to believe that the Witch, or her sphere of magical and malevolent power, is capable of almost anything...certainly of frightening them out of their wits.
Speaking of witch...
I am a horror movie fan from way back, and I have not ever seen a more frightening film than The Blair Witch Project. I would wager many of you will say the same after you see it. But it was not the witch, or her legend, that frightened me. It was the unknown, the unseen, the primal monsters that lurk in the night that have terrified us all ever since we first surmised that the darkness may well shelter things that are not there in daylight. Nocturnal: the very word is bone-cracking, as if it names some slobbering, hulking creature indigenous to medieval mountains or forests. Ancient peoples worshipped the sun and moon because they provided illumination"and perhaps the illusion of safety? We cling to solid shelter and structure for comfort, but also for protection. Heather, Mike and Josh each fall apart as they realize they are truly alone, with little hope for rescue, hunted by some elusive predator they dare not name.
What is there in the dark that is not there in the light? Call it our worst impulses, hiding in the quaking branches. Call it fear, shuddering beneath the forest floor of layers of dried leaves, smelling of mold and decay. Call it The Other: chthonic, earthbound, wordless and almost always female. Some will call it The Supernatural. And some, no doubt, will call it Witchcraft.
The Witches' Voice
July 30th., 1999 c.e.
Email: [Staff Email]
(Also See Peg's Pre-Review of this Film and INTERVIEW with the Directors)
Location: Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
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