The following appeared in The Pitt News in 1999,
before anyone knew what The Blair Witch Project was.
My first-ever critical review, I attended a late-night
showing at The Beehive, a punk-rock coffeehouse and cinema
in Oakland, Pittsburgh. I had no idea what I was in for.
An introductory blurb foreshadows the plot: In October 1994, three students wandered into the forest to shoot a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch. They disappeared, but the footage they took on the outing was discovered a year later. The movie, we are told, is that footage. It’s a scenario that quickly makes you forget it’s a gimmick.
The movie starts off with a trio of ordinary 20-somethings—they’re crude, wisecracking, and largely inarticulate. Their dialogue is so base and broken that you slowly take the film for an actual documentary. They are following the trail of 18th-century witch Elly Kedward, a historical celebrity in the small Maryland town of Burkittsville, who supposedly haunts the Black Hill Forest, stealing children and mangling bodies.
After they interview some townsfolk, the intrepid filmmakers hike into the woods to find select sites where gruesome massacres allegedly occurred. Between the campfire stories of Blair bumpkins and the playful arguments among the three researchers, the movie up till now seems like a self-parody.
And then they get lost. Heather Donahue, the director, navigates her cameramen, Mike and Josh, to the middle of a sylvan nowhere. Struggling with a useless wilderness map, they encounter subtle signs of pursuit. The first night, they hear clicking sounds int he forest, but see nothing. The next night, they hear a baby crying and see less. Heather relentlessly photographs the events, no matter how scared she is, and so all the audience can see is what she captures with a camcorder and flashlight.
What starts as mildly suspenseful becomes really goddamn scary. They keep running into the same landmarks. They wake up with geometric rock patterns arranged around their tent. The farther they hike, the crazier they get, arguing tirelessly about trivial details and fighting fits of hysteria. And when one of them disappears, all hell breaks loose.
The triumph of Blair Witch is its realism. The camera shakes enough to make Saving Private Ryan look like smooth sailing. No soundtrack interferes with the action. The characters talk like real people—which is not surprising, since there was no script to speak of. In fact, director Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez only gave the actors a cursory outline of the plot and a calculated route to follow, then set them loose. Heather, Mike and Josh (their real names) did not have the luxury of knowing everything that would happen to them, so most of their reactions are authentic terror.
The only downfall of this technique is that the suffering gets repetitive. The camera creeps across irrelevant landscape like a wandering eye, sometimes for minutes on end. The actors, scared out of their wits, repeat the same sentences in different scenes. While I certainly appreciated some time to recover from four heart-stopping night attacks, I grew tired of hearing yet another spat about who lost the compass.
And despite their actorly preparation, Josh and Mike actually seem to trade characters. Mike loses it, then gets better. Then Josh loses it. It’s almost as if Mike got tired of his mania and let Josh take it for a spin. It’s also impressive that Heather lugs her camera wherever she goes, even in the face of terror, ominous Wiccan symbols dangling from the trees, and a handful of innards their supernatural hunter leaves as a gift.
Nevertheless, Blair Witch supersedes the horror norm. Without depending on complicated makeup or special effects, the actors capably render fear in the heats of viewers on a paper-thin budget. And despite the inconsistent use of trauma as an interchangeable part, the psychological element is layered as thickly and darkly as the woods that envelop them.