The Blair Witch Project (1999) **
Every so often, a movie is made that gets the entire fucking world buzzing with anticipation. Everybody and his mother decides that they absolutely must see the film, the lines form, and the showings sell out hours in advance. And more often than not, the movie in question will fail breathtakingly to live up to its pre-release hype. And so it goes with The Blair Witch Project. “Scary as hell,” you say? “The most original and potent horror movie... in nearly twenty years,” you say? Well I say this movie is exhibit A in my case against the commonly espoused opinion that the most effective way to achieve real fright in a movie is not to show the audience anything, and to let their imaginations do all the work. This is supposed to be the operative theory behind such much-lauded movies as The Haunting (the 1963 version, anyway), and is subscribed to by seemingly every movie critic ever to walk the Earth. And of course, I don’t think I’ve read a review of The Blair Witch Project yet that didn’t make a big deal of the fact that it follows this approach, or which failed to make some kind of prediction that it would revitalize the horror genre in the years to come for that very reason.
By now, everybody knows that it is never revealed exactly what happens to our luckless heroes, only that something strange went on in those woods, and that it was bad news for Heather and company. Now, it is possible that I simply lack the imagination required by a film of this type, that my brain has been so benumbed by the likes of Bloodsucking Freaks and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie that I’m no longer capable of responding to subtlety. I really don’t think so, though. I have to side with Stephen King, who wrote in Danse Macabre that the approach usually (but not quite correctly) associated with The Haunting ultimately amounts to an attempt “to sell the sizzle without the steak.” Movies like The Blair Witch Project try to bluff the audience. They don’t actually have anything to scare you with, and are thus forced to bank everything on the proposition that you will scare yourself for them. The Blair Witch Project stands in front of you, waving its hand like Obi Wan Kenobi, saying, “You are really scared now. You feel as though you may urinate in your trousers.” Well, it doesn’t work on me. Never has, that I can remember. What does a movie have to do to scare me, you ask? Frankly, it hasn’t happened very often, but I’m not completely impervious. The Shining scares me no matter how many times I see it. Parents scared me. The scenes in Pet Sematary with the spinal meningitis girl scared me. There are moments in The Sixth Sense that scared me. Not one of these movies belongs in the same category as Doctor Butcher, M.D.; these are all films with more than gore and cheap shocks on their minds. But-- and this is a very big but-- they all confront you with something, be it a ghost, or a murder, or a prophetic nightmare. In The Blair Witch Project, practically all of the horror is implied. We see nary a witch nor ghost nor cultist nor crazed hillbilly out to terrorize the city folk, and what we are left with is 90 minutes of college kids bickering in the woods-- The Blair Bitch Project. Bickering college kids do not scare me one bit.
So, what about the story? Ah, well you see, the producers/writers/directors/ hucksters decided to put everything that might suggest that a story was being told in the first place into their promotional website and the mockumentary that they made in collaboration with the Sci-Fi Channel just before the movie went into general release. Because I am the sort of man who doesn’t want to know too much about a movie before he sees it-- particularly in the case of a movie that promises to show me something I haven’t seen before-- I never looked at the website, and I deliberately missed the TV show when it aired the week before my first attempt to see the movie (there’s a tale there... maybe some other time). Imagine my surprise when I finally saw The Blair Witch Project and discovered that it contains not the slightest shred of exposition. What is the legend of the Blair Witch? What about it would compel a college film student to make a documentary about it? What’s all this about Coffin Rock? About the guy who killed some people during the 40’s? Those piles of rocks? The stick figures? Hey, don’t ask me-- I only saw the movie! Leaving aside the conflict between my philosophy of effective horror and the filmmakers’, these are really important questions. Left unanswered, they deprive the movie of any sense or reason. It would not in any way have detracted from the film’s pretense of cinema verite to include some more interview footage and provide thereby some sense of what we’re supposed to be scared of for the rest of the movie. Nor need it have resulted in an excessive running time; as it stands, the movie is less than 90 minutes long. The very existence of the Sci-Fi Channel special and the ever-changing website (which, I am told, includes video clips) demonstrates that the filmmakers had plenty of additional footage in the can, of exactly the sort that was needed to make sense of the movie. What the hell is that indispensable expository footage doing languishing in ancillary promotional materials? Call me old-fashioned, but I just can’t get behind a movie that exists solely to flesh out its website.
So, if I liked the movie so much, why did I give it any stars at all? Partly, I think it deserves some credit for sheer originality. Not for the “found-footage” angle-- Cannibal Holocaust played that card way back in 1979. No, the originality lies in the filmmakers’ decision not to clue the actors in on what was going on, to leave them in the woods with only enough supplies to last them ‘til the next day, and to sneak up on their campsite at night to terrorize them while they caught it all on film. This is method acting taken to its logical extreme-- total immersion in the characters’ situation. That really is something I’ve never seen before, even if it didn’t work the way it was supposed to. And besides, there were some moments of tension that didn’t quite rise to the level of fear, and of course, there were those stick figures. Their potential was completely wasted in the movie, but talk about a compelling image! As a still photo, the opening shot of the scene in which dozens of those stick figures are found hanging in the trees would be extremely eerie. (So why doesn’t it work on film? Hey, if I could answer that, I’d be making horror movies instead of just reviewing them.) Call it one star for execution, plus a bonus star for raw boldness of conception.