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The Boston Phoenix Hex, Lies and Videotape

Blair Witch has its eyes wide open

By Peter Keough

JULY 19, 1999:  Probably the first time audiences were scared at a movie was at that legendary 1895 screening of the Lumière brothers' L'arrivée d'un train en gare, when viewers panicked at what they thought was a real locomotive hurtling at them. Their fright no doubt passed with the film's second screening, and certainly with the popularity of Georges Méliès's pioneering special-effects fantasy A Trip to the Moon a few years later. But that first naive thrill over an illusion remains an elusive goal for those who make and watch movies. More than just the voyeuristic realism of tabloid TV shows like Cops, it's about the desire to be drawn into a trompe-l'oeil deception, a vicarious immersion into primal, first-person terror.

Such is the appeal of independent filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's bold, brilliant, ultimately doomed The Blair Witch Project, a film concept so fresh and obvious (Anna Campion's Loaded in 1994 had the same basic premise but a much different treatment), it's amazing no one has come up with it before. No credits or title sequence frame what purports to be the ultimate found footage, shot by of a trio of students who vanished while making a documentary film about the Blair Witch, a 200-year-old legendary apparition haunting the backwoods and the subconscious of the Black Woods of western Maryland. The gimmick is so ingenious, though, that it doesn't work; as with cutting-edge special-effects extravaganzas, wonder is replaced by fascination as to how the illusion is crafted. We know this isn't real, so fright gives way to assessing how clever the filmmakers are at trying to sustain our disbelief.

Very clever indeed, at least to begin with. The three young filmmakers make distinct impressions in their self-shot, jumbled melange of preliminary footage. Heather (Heather Donahue), tough-minded and overly earnest and the brains of the project, operates the video camera for the behind-the-scenes or "the making of" footage; hers is the dominant point of view and, perhaps, the unconscious shaper of what follows. The other two crew members seem more like skeptical hired hands. Wispy Josh (Joshua Leonard), who wields the 16mm black-and-white camera, and beefy Mike (Michael Williams), the sound man, have a slacker charm and insouciance. They are clearly cowed by Heather, and the tension between them and their boss is not sexual or sexist but authoritarian. Bantering and low-key though they are in their improvised dialogue (the actors should get a writing and cinematography credit), the three hint at a borderline hysteria that could ignite even without the manifestation of a Blair Witch.

The details of that legend, as concocted by the filmmakers and related in pseudo-interviews with locals, have a creepy authenticity. Originally a woman banished from the community in the 18th century for unorthodox medical practices perceived as black magic, the "witch" has since returned in various incarnations. A pair of fisherman interviewees point out a rock where victims were found bound and eviscerated. They tell of an old house in the woods where, in the 1940s, an old man confessed to killing children at the witch's bidding.

Going in search of that house, our three heroes lose their way. The film does, too. There forms a pattern of nocturnal terrors followed by a daytime rationalization (it's the pattern of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, though it may not be discernible in Jan de Bont's f/x-heavy upcoming adaptation, The Haunting) and a gradual breakdown of civilized façades. The night is cut by heavy breathing, truncated dialogue, and distant howls in the darkness; the day reveals artifacts left behind -- a hole full of stones, stick figures that are a masterpiece of ambiguous evil. And for a night or two, the terror is visceral.

But as in any horror film, repetition breeds contempt. Like another Artisan release, Pi, The Blair Witch Project might have been more powerful as a short subject. Or some areas could have been further developed. Is Heather herself the witch, onto whom Mike and Josh are projecting their own terrors? What is the significance of the two film formats in terms of point of view? Is one more real than the other? Couldn't more have been implied with the space off screen, and the ellipses of time between segments of footage? And what of the camera's role as a device for fending off, however futilely, inescapable horror?

That last question might be the point of the whole project. The scariest shot in the movie is not any literal image hurtling from the screen, but a frame of total darkness. Seeing may be believing, The Blair Witch Project suggests, but what is unseen is terrifying beyond belief.


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