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Believe the hype: this is one frightening film

The Blair Witch Project Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard
Screenplay: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (II)
Producers: Gregg Hale and Robin Cowie
Directors: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (II)
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence

To begin, I must admit that I might just be the perfect audience member for viewing The Blair Witch Project, the debut film from directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. I'm an avid hiker/camper--I love the woods. I've spent weekends out, taking hikes and enjoying the beauty of the earth. I'm afraid of the dark, just like everyone else in the world. But more importantly, I'm a film student, and as a film student, watching the events in The Blair Witch Project wreaked havoc on my nervous system the way no film has ever managed to before. Nearly everyone will be at least somewhat terrified by what they witness in the dark theater showing this film. For me, it is hands down one of the most terrifying and unsettling motion pictures I've ever had to endure.

Much has been said about this masterpiece of terror since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival (unfortunately, I had learned of the film too late to purchase tickets at the festival). Many have called it the scariest film ever made. Many have called it a turkey. Many jaded viewers become detached from the experience by questioning the logic of the three characters. For instance, "Why would they continue filming after all these strange incidences began occuring? Why didn't they bring a cell phone? Why are they acting like morons?" It is my opinion that these questions are about as stupid as one can ask of a film that establishes its characters so fully. Not for one instant did I call into question the motives of these three individuals. And not for one instant was I not thoroughly engaged.

The real question still bothers many viewers: is it real? The answer is both yes and no. Every plot element has been fabricated by the filmmakers, right down to the unusual objects that appear halfway through the film. However, the emotions and performances given by Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard are not fake. They are about as realistic as you can get without entering snuff territory. This is one of those films that rests entirely on the actors--had they performed poorly, the film would not have worked. It's as simple as that. And we can thank Myrick and Sánchez for choosing these three extremely talented performers.

The film opens with a warning: none of the characters will survive their ordeal. It's a haunting beginning, giving the film a feeling of hopelessness. "In October of 1994, three student film makers disappeared in the woods near Burkittesville, Maryland. One year later, their footage was found." Right away, the outcome of the three students is established--none of them will leave the woods alive (or at all, for that matter). Using a cheap video camera, Heather captures the preparations of the group before heading out onto their excursion. As most college students are, Heather, Josh, and Michael are fearless and excited, venturing into the unknown without giving much heed to the warnings of the locals. One woman admits that she believes the legend enough to not go into the woods. These interviews are not just to give us background on the legend itself, but to add some humor before playing with our fears.

The second day of the shoot, Heather leads the group into the woods to find the location of a legendary murder. Right away, we get the impression that these filmmakers are sadly inept. They obviously haven't planned out anything (something student filmmakers seem to do a lot). Heather basically just wants to setup the camera, shoot, and leave. The leaving part, however, isn't as easy as they thought it would be. After the scheduled two days in the woods, they turn around and head back to their car. Quickly, Mike and Josh start panicking, realizing that they have been walking for days without finding the car. Heather is adamant, telling them (and herself) that she knows where they are.

But soon, Heather herself isn't so sure. Mysterious events start occuring: every night, sounds in the distance scare them out of their tents; their map vanishes; man-like figurines appear strung from the branches of the trees. It is here that The Blair Witch Project succeeds the most, allowing the fear of the characters to build slowly. And by the ingenious use of the camera, we the viewers are transported into the picture as a fourth victim. We feel their fear because we are witnessing it from their point-of-view. It's a remarkable concept, and the directors maximize the effect. Not for one second do they allow the actors to break from their characters. We never see anything filmed from a third-person--it's all handheld by the three actors themselves. The result is a breathtakingly original concept that builds suspense like no other film in years.

Unfortunately, how this will all work in these days of cynical audiences is uncertain. Will viewers be frightened out of their chairs, or will they be bored? The audience I viewed the film with seemed to be the former, but I have heard more of the latter. This, however, is not a problem with the film, but with the audience. Audiences today confuse "being scared" with "being startled." Someone jumping out from behind a corner is now considered scary. But the realization that you are lost in the woods with nowhere to go is considered boring. Sure, I love a good "jump" scare every now and then, but those will never replace the utter horror of the psyche.

Come Oscar time, there is really only one area this film could acquire any sort of nominations, and that is the acting department (and perhaps editing). There's no script, no fancy special effects, and no real direction. It's basically three actors interacting with each other and their environment. And by God, if Heather Donahue doesn't receive an Oscar nomination for her performance, the Academy seriously needs to reevaluate itself (perhaps even give themselves a Razzie award). Donahue's performance is so real that it's easy to forget you are watching a fictional film. Because of her, we have an emotional center, and because of her, we can forgive the film for its flaws. Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard are just as equally impressive, but they don't have the same character development as Donahue has. This is one of the best performances ever caught on film, and Donahue deserves all the recognition she gets.

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez direct the film as best as they can, considering they aren't even around to direct the actors. Leaving slips of paper in cans, the directors provide each actor with a certain emotion or "plot point" they must reach before the end of filming. The actors improvise dialogue and situations to accompany that emotion and work their way to a plot. One can only imagine how much time both Myrick and Sánchez spent editing this film, and that is where their contributions to the project show the most. The editing is clean and precise, and very well done. The use of sound is also stunning. They have yet to forget that sometimes the most frightening sound can be silence. Myrick and Sánchez have crafted one of the finest horror films ever made, and their film will go down in history as a breakthrough in filmmaking.

The Blair Witch Project is rated R for language throughout as well as some brief glimpses of violence. Is the witch real? Is the legend a true story? It's up for you to decide, as the filmmakers wisely don't tell us. Sometimes, the scariest thing is that which we do not know. Special note must go to the final five minutes, which can be easily ranked with the best and most frightening moments ever caught on film. Many have criticized the ending for not telling us what happened, and yet that's where the film's ingeniousness lies. It doesn't tell us because it can't. This is what the filmmakers' footage shows. The final image is haunting and eerie, and it is bound to stick with you for days after (even months after). The film shutters as it gets slammed around, and in the blurry mess, we can make out the face of Heather in her final moments. It's horrifying, it's sad, and it's brilliant.

**** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
Movie Reviews