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Weekly Alibi The Blair Witch Project

Sticks and Stones...

By Devin D. O'Leary

AUGUST 2, 1999:  Riding high on the biggest wave of pre-release buzz and film fest bonhomie in many a moon, the infamous Blair Witch Project is finally crawling its way across America. While most films tend to drown in a sea of expectations once their word-of-mouth factor reaches its high-water mark, The Blair Witch Project seems to be flourishing amid hyperbolic claims, worshipful reviews and a reported two-day waiting period for tickets in some big cities.

Thanks to Hollywood's latest wave of snarky, self-referential horror flicks (Scream and all its progeny), filmgoers are starving for a genuine nail-biting, pants-wetting experience. The Blair Witch Project's more ardent fans are calling it the most horrifying movie ever made. Is it? Well, probably not. But this ingenious indie shocker is potent enough to goose a little fear juice into the most jaded of horror fans.

Conceived and executed by a group of film students at the University of Central Florida, The Blair Witch Project is an experimental, first-person perspective assault on the senses. The film's opening crawl informs us that, in the fall of 1994, three student filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard) ventured into the Black Hills Forest of Maryland to shoot a documentary about a local ghost story known as "The Blair Witch." The three young filmmakers were never heard from again. Two years later, a backpack was found buried in the forest. Inside were several film canisters, DAT tapes, videocassettes and a Hi-8 camera belonging to Heather Donahue. The Blair Witch Project is allegedly an assemblage of these tapes, the final recorded hours of the missing students.

After shooting only a few minutes of usable footage, our three filmmakers become hopelessly lost in the woods while searching for legendary landmarks like Coffin Rock. Tensions mount as the three grow increasingly cold, tired and hungry. Michael and Joshua blame Heather for dragging them out to the middle of nowhere. Heather steadfastly maintains her confidence and bluster, despite the clearly worsening situation. Just as emotions are running at a fever pitch, weird things start happening to our trio. Thumping footsteps are heard outside the tent at night. Mysterious piles of stones appear. Eerie stick figures litter the forest floor. Everything takes place off camera and nothing concrete ever seems to materialize on film. Nonetheless, our three protagonists are soon consumed by their own fears.

Of course, the story is entirely fictional. But the film's creators have gone out of their way to play this entire project with a straight face -- never once acting as if The Blair Witch Project were anything but a real documentary. A detailed Web site (www.blairwitch.com) discusses the history of the Blair Witch legend, reproduces biographical information on the filmmakers and issues "updates" on the ongoing police investigation. A recent hour-long special on the Sci-Fi Channel ("curse of the Blair Witch") delved further into the mythology of the Blair Witch and featured many behind-the-scenes conversations with "friends" and "relatives" of the lost filmmakers.

All of this may seem like overkill -- either too much build-up, or too much revealing of the film's secrets. On the contrary, the Florida filmmakers planned The Blair Witch Project as a multimedia work to begin with. The Blair Witch Dossier will soon hit bookstore shelves, as will a "mix tape" purportedly found inside Josh Leonard's abandoned car. Although it's easy to watch and appreciate The Blair Witch Project without consulting any of these other sources of information, hunting them down will greatly increase one's cult-like connection with the film. On screen, The Blair Witch Project contains little information on the Blair Witch herself or the horrors she has allegedly incited over the years. The only way to fully grasp the significance of places like Tappy East Creek and names such as Elly Kedward is to examine the Web site, catch a rerun of the Sci-Fi special or pick up a copy of the Blair Witch book in stores next month.

In fact, the more one reads up on Blair Witch mythology and the more one buys into the film's assertion of reality, the more frightening the experience will be. Go ahead -- build this film up as much as you want in your own mind. It's not hard. The filmmakers have certainly done an admirable job making the on-screen antics seem frighteningly real. In actuality, the film's behind-the-camera personalities handed a 16mm film camera and a Hi-8 videocam to their three actors, set them loose in the woods with only the most skeletal of instructions and then proceeded to "stalk" them for eight days. The actors improvised everything and were given direction only through notes passed at certain designated food and equipment drop points along their journey. The film was shot sequentially with no breaks. The actors became increasingly bedraggled, and the resulting emotions displayed are uncomfortably real. This isn't just method acting, it's method filmmaking!

Everything witnessed on screen is seen through the lens of the camera. Many parts are jittery, out-of-focus or entirely immersed in darkness -- all of which merely adds to the terrifying sense of paranoia and claustrophobia. With no special effects, no professional equipment and a less-than-shoestring budget, The Blair Witch Project makes brilliant use of its nonexistent resources. Milking the most out of insinuation and implication, Blair Witch imparts some old-fashioned fear of the dark without a chainsaw wielding maniac or a dismembered corpse in sight. In short, The Blair Witch Project casts a powerful spell.

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