The Blair Witch Project

(Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, USA, 1999)


The Blair Witch Project is both more and less than a film.

It is almost impossible to avoid the numerous attachments to the movie, devoted to what its makers call the Blair Witch mythology: a book, a comic, a CD, a TV documentary, and above all an official Website credited with causing the buzz that led to the film’s phenomenal box-office success in America.

All of this background material strives to give The Blair Witch Project the aura of a mockumentary – to a degree that could scarcely be imagined from simply watching the film itself.

In the movie, three cinema students go into the woods of Maryland to make a cute, fairly innocuous investigative report into the local legend of the Blair Witch. They lose their way, start arguing and are increasingly menaced by mysterious sounds and apparitions in the night.

Finally, they disappear, and all that remains – and all that the movie is comprised of – is the video and film reels they have shot. On screen, this reality-effect is a straightforward, transparent conceit. The multi-media mythology, however, labours to trigger the apprehension that every part of this fiction is real: the students, the subsequent piecing together of the evidence, the Witch herself.

It is easy to dismiss all this hokey paraphernalia external to the film as mere hype, or the acme of movie merchandising. At the very least, it all stands as a canny exercise in marketing – and a veritable David and Goliath story in which a very small, almost amateur work, half shot on video, managed to muscle into a commercial industry dominated by blockbusters.

There is also an intriguing cultural dimension to this Project. This is very much a case of narrative in the age of the CD-Rom. For the restless, technologically primed surfers of our time, a nominal, central storyline is only a starting point for branching-off into other extensions.

A self-contained plot is replaced by an ersatz mythology: snippets and documents construct a potentially infinite world arising from the bare bones of the initial tale. This imaginary world ranges both forward and backward in time – indeed, the Blair Witch mythology stretches way into the dim past. And – like all good mystery stories – it invites us to speculate on the missing pieces, fill in the tantalising gaps and toy with a range of possible explanations.

The literary and aesthetic theorists of a previous era would surely have gone mad trying to figure out exactly what kind and degree of willing suspension of disbelief is involved in the consumption of such expanded, multi-media fiction. Hence the uneasiness in some of the reactions to the Blair Witch juggernaut: is it the fruit of a youthful, boundless, postmodern imagination, or just an elaborate trick to win a few, fleeting moments of celebrity attention?

The phenomenon is not without precedent. David Lynch and his associates blazed this trail with the numerous diaries, guide books and so on spinning out of the TV series Twin Peaks – including a final, big screen sequel, Fire Walk With Me (1992). The Twin Peaks project offered its fans both a traditional movie and tele-viewing experience, as well as a cultish immersion in the world suggested by the central narrative.

The big difference between Lynch’s project and this one is that the central object, the Twin Peaks TV series itself, was rich, dense and compelling enough to warrant its cultish extensions. Judged as a film, The Blair Witch Project, by contrast, is as thin as a wafer. The strenuous mythology overpowers and diminishes the movie – creating an unfortunate experience of deflation and disappointment.

As conceived and staged by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, The Blair Witch Project is in fact a horror movie for those audiences who have yet to see any classic horror movies, such as the disquieting films of the supernatural produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s.

Like those old films, this one plays on the ambiguous and the unseen. Terror is conveyed by darkness, by faint sounds, by everything that is illegible, incomprehensible, uncontainable.

It joins forces with the far more accomplished (and resourced) The Sixth Sense (1999) in the way that it eschews elaborate special effects, refuses the contemporary tradition of graphic gore, and largely foregoes the ironic, self-conscious in-joking of Scream (1996) and its many imitations.

Myrick and Sanchez give one modern twist to their rather classical aspirations. The supposedly real footage comprising the film – both the stark black-and-white 16 millimetre and the low-tech video – comes to carry a spooky, unsettling effect in its very texture. At least since John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), filmmakers have been exploiting the uncanniness and unease generated by such apparently raw images and sounds.

Ultimately, there is simply not much going on in this film. The principal actors (Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard) improvise badly, and their characters are shrill, unengaging bores. Although most clichés of the slasher/stalker genre are avoided, the convention whereby our adventurers must slowly turn on each other is uninventively and tediously followed.

It has been suggested that The Blair Witch Project is, deep down, a cautionary parable about American isolationism. The interpretation holds up to some extent: the moment these gormless kids lose control of the map and the territory, they make nervous cracks about all things foreign, and start blaring (in a most unsubtle scene) their national anthem.

However, any reading of the film along these lines is charitable. One can suspect that what began as a modest endeavour picked up its grander ambitions and pretensions only later, in the opportunistic elaboration of that darn Internet-driven mythology.

The film itself neither capitalises on its most intriguing ambiguities nor elaborates its mockumentary conceit. It is just a typical, Z grade horror movie.

appalling sequel: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

© Adrian Martin December 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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