The Blair Witch Project [retro review]

“We are going to die out here! I am so scared!”

The Scoop: 1999 R, directed by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez and starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams

Tagline: Everything you’ve heard is true.

Summary Capsule: Three filmmakers get lost in Maryland woods tracking down a local witch legend. The audience gets seasick on land just watching them.

Justin’s Rating: Die, Heather, Die!

Justin’s Review: Back in April of this year (1999) I spent some time surfing around independent movie sites, to see if I could spot any cult flicks in the making. For the most part it was a wasted effort, but I did stumble upon a creepy little site promoting a Sundance festival favorite, The Blair Witch Project. After downloading the trailers and reading the rest of the info on the page, I became fascinated with the film and anxious to see it when it came out this July. As far as I could predict, though, it wasn’t going to be all that well-known, just perfect for a cult film. And up to about two weeks prior to its release it wasn’t… but now you know the rest, how this low-budget fake documentary swept the country by storm and became one of the biggest summer movies. Like the movie itself, this popularity is mysterious and intriguing. It’s funny, because you can easily see how this movie could have been swept under the rug and known only to people… like us!

[Deep breath] The Blair Witch Project takes three student filmmakers deep into Maryland woods in search of footage for a documentary about the “Blair Witch”, a local legend dating back to the 1700’s. Promptly, they get lost and become hunted by an unknown force (rednecks? the Blair Witch? Barney?) until… well, until they don’t come back. We see the film through their eyes, namely a B/W camera (shooting the documentary) and a camcorder (shooting the behind-the-scenes of the documentary, carrying on the tradition of pretentious film students). Excuse me, but what college nerd would film a behind-the-scenes documentary of the real documentary? Are they that egotistic? Once again, low budgets drive real filmmakers to use their limitations ingeniously, and this technique works effectively (unless you get sick from the jerky movements, a problem that’s affected a lot of people’s view of the movie).

The real genius of the Blair Witch is the blurring between reality and fiction. The filmmakers use their real names as actors, their responses to unknown phenomena are strikingly real, their website promotes the film as being a real event that took place, etc. You don’t get Oscar-winning performances out of the three actors (Josh, Mike, and Heather); instead, we get real conversations that range from inane comments about groceries to screams and phrases of terror as they run in the woods.

Okay, I knew basically what was going to happen in this film. We really don’t have any hope for the actors, since we’re told they disappear for good right at the start of the movie. Up until the last ten minutes, I wasn’t all that surprised by what happened. And for a horror film, this movie has -ZERO- “jump out and scare you” scenes. Still, about an hour into the film, I found myself squirming in my seat, descending slowly into fear. It’s subtlety and believability that drew me in, not special effects or blood. As Heather says in her famous confession, she (and we) know that they are going to die. It’s nerve-breaking to watch, as the three kids fight every type of fear imaginable: getting lost, woods, scary noises, the night, vanishings, omens (oh, the omens!), and death.

One of the things I really didn’t expect about the Blair Witch was that the students are downright entertaining to watch. Much of the early movie is filled with great lines of dialogue that made me laugh; Mike is the guy to keep your eye on for that. However, Heather, the sole girl and team leader, is excruciatingly annoying. I know people like this, sadly. Her leadership is never quite questioned, but as they get lost and the situation spirals out of control, her statements that she knows where they’re going, this is what they should do, shut up and keep moving… they serve to mock her character. Her arrogance and pride sell them all into death, and I wish that there was an outtake scene during the credits where the Blair Witch or somebody would just slap her for ten minutes or so. Her attitude rivals the terror in the woods for most frightening effect.

So, you ask me, is The Blair Witch Project scary? No. Is it creepy, freaky, and utterly unnerving? Yes. It’s not a film to go see challenging the screen to scare you. Just let yourself go, and soon discover that you are the invisible fourth camper along for the ride.

Andie’s Rating: 5 out of 5 Things that go bump in the night

Andie’s Review: I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten into arguments over this movie. I’ll talk to people and they’ll say, “That movie sucked.” So, of course, I have to ask them to justify this thought-provoking, insightful review and they’ll say something along the lines of, “It was so fake.” I just wanna go slap the s**t out of them and yell, “As opposed to all those other movies that are so real?!?!?!” ARGH! Personally, I think it takes a certain level of maturity and appreciation for the cinematic arts to really like and understand this movie and what it did for the film industry.

That having been said, I thought this movie was the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. It was completely realistic. When I was younger, my friends and I used to go “ghost hunting” around the reportedly haunted Mandalay Mansion in the town I grew up in. If something like this had actually happened to us, I guarantee you the reactions we had would be very close to what happened to Mike, Heather, and Josh. The way their attitudes and self-control evolve and deteriorate throughout the movie are very real and very scary.

I agree with the other reviewers, it’s not a “man-jumps-out-of-the-closet” type of scare movie and that’s not what I expected it to be. However, I kept getting more and more freaked out as the movie went along. From the point where Heather unwraps the handkerchief to the end of the movie, I watched practically the whole thing with my hands over my face, peering out the cracks between my fingers. Also, I couldn’t stop thinking about the ending. The more I thought about it, the creepier it got. And the night after I saw it, I was in my basement, alone, and my movie got over and I almost couldn’t get off the couch. When I finally did, it was the fastest 25 yard dash in the history of the world from that couch to the basement door. This movie comes extremely recommended.

P.S.: I HATE people who don’t like a movie, yet can’t justify why not. It’s like they have to not like it just to be different, like with Blair Witch or Titanic. I’m not saying people can’t like these movies, but they should have some reason why not. ARGH.

Kyle’s Rating: Uh, I choose “pass”

Kyle’s Review: I’ve done a lot of things in my life that served to only propel myself into the mainstream. I wore a pair of those MC Hammer pants once or twice in my junior high days. I came this close to getting Led Zeppelin lyrics tattooed on my ass in high school. And I’m currently the “proud” owner of a set of small Powderpuff Girls figurines. Were these three transgressions, three of hundreds dotting my past, committed to improve my social standing, or to give into peer pressure, or to find happiness where so many others had? No. In each instance, I was just trying to impress a girl.

I bet you can already see where this is going. When the Blair Witch phenomenon really took off, I saw that hot girls and Goth-wannabe girls alike were buying into the hype. I had to get a piece of the action! I had to go see The Blair Witch Project on a Friday night and then head to the local coffee and teahouse and commence my own Hot Girl Project! My will be done!

You probably didn’t see this coming: I never went to see The Blair Witch Project in the theater. Here’s another surprise, technically-speaking, I’ve never even seen The Blair Witch Project. Showtime had a free preview weekend and that was the Sunday film, so I watched the first fifteen minutes. Then I lost interest and flipped through some other stuff. Then I came back for the last “tension-packed” ten minutes. Glad I didn’t waste money on BWP in the theater, I went off to bed to dream of new ways to impress women. Ah, such is love.

Where was I? Yeah, so the sequel to BWP is coming out and that looks pretty exciting. Maybe, maybe not. But at least it’s not handheld camera tomfoolery. I guess I’m just not cinematically mature enough to watch more than an hour of shaky camera footage. I refuse offers to watch wedding videos! But if any hot girls want to watch it one night with me, well that changes things. Call me!

Damn, but I hate you so much Heather.

Intermission!

  • Connections with the seven rock piles and the three rock piles (hint: they refer to different groups of people)
  • The kid in the interviewed mother’s arms
  • The closeup of Mike’s chest
  • The handprint in the house
  • In the supermarket scene near the start of the film, you hear in the background, the line “You’re Rick Derris?”. This is taken from Kevin Smith’s Clerks.
  • The actors were requested to interview the townspeople, who often, unbeknownst to the actors, were planted by the directors. As a result, the expressions on the actors’ faces were unrehearsed.
  • The actors were given no more than a 35-page outline of the mythology behind the plot before shooting began. All lines were improvised and nearly all the events in the film were unknown to the three actors beforehand, and were often on-camera surprises to them all.
  • Some theatergoers experienced nausea from the handheld camera movements and actually had to leave to vomit. In some Toronto theatres, ushers asked patrons who where prone to motion sickness to sit in the aisle seat and to try not to “throw up on other people.”
  • One of the video cameras used by the actors was bought at Wal-Mart. After filming was completed, the producers returned the camera for a refund, making their budget money go even further.
  • This film was in the Guinness Book Of World Records for “Top Budget:Box Office Ratio” (for a mainstream feature film). The film cost $22,000 to make and made back $240.5 million, a ratio of $1 spent for every $10,931 made.
  • It took a mere 8 days to shoot this film.

Groovy Quotes

Heather: I just want to apologize to Josh’s mom, and Mike’s mom, and my mom. I am so sorry! Because it was my fault. I was the one who brought them here. I was the one that said “keep going south.” I was the one who said that we were not lost. It was my fault, because it was my project. I am so scared! I don’t know what’s out there. We are going to die out here! I am so scared!

Heather: How would we have, like, just… made a campsite in the middle of three piles of rocks, just by coincidence?

Joshua: I gave you BACK the map, Heather.
Heather: I gave you the map.
Joshua: I gave you BACK… THE MAP.

Michael: What are some of your favorite things to do?
Heather: Well, on Sundays I used to like to go hiking, but now…

Heather: I’m scared to close my eyes. I’m scared to open them.

Joshua: (about Gilligan’s Island) There was no beer on the island, man. If they had beer they would have had, like, big-ass orgies.

Heather: Witches in days gone by were roasted just like my Vienna sausage.

Joshua: OK, here’s your motivation. You’re lost, you’re angry in the woods, and no one is here to help you. There’s a witch and she keeps leaving s*** outside your door. There’s no one here to help you! She left little trinkets, you took one of them, she ran after us. There’s no one here to help you! We walked for 15 hours today, we ended up in the same place! There’s no one here to help you, THAT’S your motivation! THAT’S YOUR MOTIVATION!

Heather: I’m not allowed to smoke, but Mike’s allowed to fart as much as he wants?
Josh: I gave Mike no fart allowance.

Michael: [sees dozens of stick-men hanging from trees] No hillbilly is this creative.

Heather: I’m very pleasantly surprised by our little Mikey.
Mike: Our little Mikey.

Heather: They went into the woods prepared to find death. What they found was a desicration of humanity at the site which trappers have often referred to as Coffin Rock.

Heather: What?
Mike: Nothing. I don’t know why you gotta have every conversation on video, man. Tape some evidence.
Heather: Cause we’re making a documentary.
Mike: Not about us getting lost. We’re making a documentary about a witch.
Heather: I have the camera. It doesn’t hurt, because we’ll all look back on this, and laugh hardily.

Heather: How’s east?
Mike: East?
Heather: Yeah, we’ve been going south all this time. How’s east?
Mike: Wicked Witch of the West, Wicked Witch of the East. Which one was bad?
Heather: Wicked Witch of the West was the bad one.
Mike: Then we should go east.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Deliverance
  • Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows
  • The Village
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9 Comments

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