Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

USA, 81 minutes
Directors/writers/editors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Photography: Neal Fredericks
Music: Tony Cora
Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams

In its brief moment, The Blair Witch Project was such a many-tentacled phenomenon that even up front it requires a little sorting and unpacking. For your consideration: the over-the-top guerrilla marketing campaign, the extraordinary profit generated (nearly $250 million in revenue on a $25,000 production for a staggering return of 1,000,000%), its use of the so-called "found footage" narrative, the strategies of the filmmakers to elicit performances and create a unique look and feel, and last but not least the episodes of vertigo reported by viewers sickened by the shaky handheld style of shooting. There's also of course the question of whether it's even scary at all.

That last is an easy one for me. Yes, it's scary, not in the manner of outright shock and mayhem, but rather in exploiting an insidious, irresistible dread and hopelessness that feel like the last stop before complete despair, whether the sources are supernatural or it's just banal old death from exposure. The Blair Witch Project is loud, loose, messy, clumsy, aimless, and obvious. It's a stunt, with all manner of low-budget gaffes, no sense of tonal consistency, and numbing repetitions. Yet somehow it never fails to get inside my head and make my skin crawl. Likely spoilers ahead.

The Blair Witch Project is often held responsible for the rash of found-footage films that emerged as a class nearly 10 years later, starting with approximately [•Rec]. The idea is that the movie is a compendium of footage shot by the principals; we see it well after the fact, in media res, with no explanation other than what we can glean. Blair Witch explains it this way in a nicely ominous opening note: "In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found."

It's a clever idea that Blair Witch carries off well. Problems that routinely crop up in the latter-day attempts are dealt with better here. They keep shooting, for example, because the documentary director, Heather Donahue (played by Heather Donahue ... all three principals bear the names of the actors playing them ... don't ask)—they keep shooting because Heather is obviously driven. Josh (Joshua Leonard) and Mike (Michael C. Williams), in fact, repeatedly get mad at her for continuing to shoot in all kinds of situations where it is not appropriate. And she continues to do so. At one point she tearfully tells them, "It's all I have."

The story: A quick setup establishes an incoherent but vaguely disturbing legend of a witch that lives in the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland (formerly known as Blair, though we never learn why the name changed). Heather, Josh, and Mike are making a documentary about it. Among other things Burkittsville was the roaming ground in the 1940s for a serial killer who preyed on children. In a portentous (and pretentious) shot for the documentary, Heather claims there are an unusually large number of children's graves in a cemetery with stones going back to the 18th century. A woman she interviews details one version of the legend. At a critical point in her story the baby she holds in her arms reaches up to cover her mouth, as if to stop her talking. It looks like serendipity, but it's eerie.

Then the three are off on an overnight into the woods, looking for specific sites such as an area where a mass murder occurred, and another cemetery in the woods long abandoned. As the group leaves the car the camera pivots back and takes a long look at it. It's the last we'll see of it. Their planned one night in the woods stretches to six, as they become lost, begin to bicker with one another, and experience ever more disturbing events at night.

This is the heart of the film and what we see is basically footage shot by three actors, with no particular camera skills among them. Each was also given a specific direction by co-directors and co-writers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez that the others did not know about—lose the map, run into the woods with no explanation, etc. Nor did they know the others had also been given directions. That they did not have fun on this shoot is in front of our eyes. It's often raining and it is clearly cold, and at night someone is playing unpleasant jokes on them. There is much to complain about in this long central passage—the repetitions, the harsh tone the characters (and players) take with one another, and the low impact of the shocks. They find creepy and horrifying things, hear terrifying sounds—but it does not necessarily translate to shocks and chills for us, because the technical skills aren't there (and are precluded anyway by the premise). What we experience more often is the misery of watching miserable people and wishing there was something we could do. Also wishing they would hold the camera still more often.

Yet, for me—and in spite of some egregious passages of performance—this is the best and most effective part of the movie now, the only part that does seem to me to improve and grow more interesting. On the third or fourth day—running low on food and optimism, at odds with one another and beginning to break down emotionally—they decide to use their compass to keep themselves walking south, and they walk south all day. At the end of the day they arrive back at the place where they started that morning, and camp again in the same place. This is when the dimensions become apparent. This is no longer rational. Watching them descend into it, understand it, accept it, is truly chilling.

The famous last scene is great, of course, especially the first time. The ghost story that has become a monster story now becomes the worst and most cruel sort of haunted house story, as Heather and Mike (Josh now lost, only his occasional bellowing voice from afar remaining) find an abandoned cabin in the woods, and enter. From that point on it's a very good bit of horror movie business all the way up to its indelible final image, perfectly set up from early.

Say what you will about the found-footage genre—I admit a weakness for many movies that employ it. I think Cloverfield, [•Rec], and Troll Hunter are all well worth seeing, though they fail the premise in many ways. The Blair Witch Project, however, rarely fails the premise, which is only one reason among many others that I think it's really pretty great.

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