Blair Witch Project, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"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." With this ominous pronouncement on a title card, The Blair Witch Project begins. It's an effective and startling hook to open a film, and the product that follows delivers on the promise of this unusual premise. The Blair Witch Project caused a major stir with Sundance, and for good reason - it was perhaps the most offbeat, energetic, and eye-opening motion picture to screen there. Word-of-mouth was so strong that a special screening had to be scheduled in the 1300-seat Eccles theater, and it was packed.

Recent years have seen a dramatic upturn in the number of so-called "meta-documentaries" (or "mockumentaries"): real-seeming fakes in the mold of Orson Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds" radio play. Titles like Dadetown, Unmade Beds, Forgotten Silver, and 20 Dates have toyed with the line between fiction and reality in often interesting ways. And, while The Blair Witch Project belongs in the same loosely defined category, it's another kind of film altogether. It's a horror movie that lives up to its name, and does so with only one brief scene of mild gore.

The Blair Witch Project is, in a word, brilliant - and is even more impressive considering that it's the debut effort from filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. (Some will argue that something this experimental and unusual would not have come from an established director, and there's ample evidence to back up such a statement.) Watching this film is a harrowing experience because we accept the characters as completely real and become engaged in their ordeal. In one corner of my mind, I knew this was all fictional, but the verisimilitude is impressive, and results in an experience that is as fascinating as it is involving and creepy.

The Blair Witch Project is presented as a documentary within a documentary. Aspiring director Heather Donahue, a film student at Montgomery College, has decided to chronicle the legend of the supposed "Blair Witch" - a mythical figure that has supposedly haunted Maryland's Black Hills Forest since the late 18th century and is credited for numerous, heinous murders. Accompanying Heather are camera man Joshua Leonard and sound operator Michael Williams. In addition to making a 16 mm black-and-white film, Heather is capturing virtually everything on High 8 video with the intention of assembling a behind-the-scenes look at how her movie, "The Blair Witch Project," was made.

The first images we see are of a group of seemingly normal college students getting ready for a few days in the woods. They mug for the camera, crack jokes, and go food shopping. Next, they proceed to a cemetery where they film the opening scene - a monologue by Heather recounting part of the legend. From there, they travel to the town of Burkittsville to interview several residents about the Blair Witch, including one who claims to have seen the apparition. After that, they enter the forest, tracking the legend. They become lost and are never seen again, but their surviving video and film footage tells of their nerve-wracking and horrifying experiences with the supernatural, and of the tension that grows among them as they blame each other for their predicament.

The element that makes The Blair Witch Project unusually compelling is the atypical manner in which it is presented. Every scene is a point-of-view shot, shown exactly as one might expect from someone carrying around a video camera. The transitions are unexpected and often jarring - the kind of thing that would result from turning the camera off at one point, then turning it back on later. Some of the most chilling sequences occur at night, when the darkness foils the video. There are instances when the screen is black and all we have to rely on is the audio - the near-panicked voices of the protagonists in the foreground and strange, unearthly noises in the background. At other times, the action depicted is chaotic and difficult to piece together, often because the person doing the filming is running or unsure what to capture. It's not hard to understand why these segments work so well - they rely on the imagination to fill in the pictures, and what our minds conjure up is always more horrifying than anything the filmmakers can put on screen (even with today's special effects technology). Also, this seemingly haphazard and "unprofessional" approach gives the audience a "you are there" feeling that draws them into the experience, making everything that transpires more shocking and immediate that it would seem in a conventional format.

The trio of actors - Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard (they use their real names) - aren't merely good, they're excellent. Their performances are perfect - no one shows a hint of artifice or fakery. Their conversations and emotions feel right for the changing circumstances, and they don't talk as if their lines have been scripted. (In fact, much of The Blair Witch Project was done using improvisation - an approach that contributes to its believability.) It doesn't take long for us to develop a bond with these characters, even though we know they aren't going to make it. And one of the final scenes, with Heather offering a tearful apology to her mother, is heartbreaking.

One could argue that the pacing is erratic, but, while there are times when events progress slowly (I admit to checking my watch once), it's necessary to the film's desire to present vivid characters and unravel events slowly. The supernatural is only one element of The Blair Witch Project's suspense - the other involves the psychological deterioration of the characters as circumstances become increasingly desperate and they can't find their way out of the woods. Directors Sanchez and Myrick are constantly ratcheting up the level of tension - sometimes to an almost unbearable state.

For those who like to nitpick, the movie does have a few (minor) contrivances. Even though events are set in 1994, it's still odd that a group of three people going deep into the woods would not have a cell phone with them. Granted, portable phones weren't as omnipresent in 1994 as they are today, but they were still reasonably common. (It would have been more believable for the trio to have had one, but for it not to have worked, since cellular technology is notoriously capricious in sparsely populated areas.) Also, the cameras are on until the very end - if I had been the characters' position, I wouldn't have bothered with a video record once I realized my life was in danger. But these are petty comments, and I'm sure the filmmakers have answers for them.

In fact, a great deal of time and effort has gone into developing a backstory for The Blair Witch Project. The website ( presents the events of the film as real occurrences, and includes bios of the characters, a history of the Blair Witch, news clips about the disappearances, interviews with relatives, excerpts from Heather's journal, and information about the police investigation (which was supposedly abandoned in 1997, when the case was declared "inactive and unsolved"). It is likely that anyone going to this film without being aware that it's a work of fiction will emerge from the theater convinced that what they witnessed is real. No horror film before or since can make such a lofty claim.

Sanchez and Myrick deserve credit not only for attempting something different, but for succeeding so brilliantly at it. Their work speaks volumes for both their talent and their future potential. The fact that a recent movie, The Last Broadcast, used a similar storyline and approach, but failed miserably as both an artistic expression and a form of entertainment, is evidence of Sanchez and Myrick's ability. For now, they can enjoy the way their production has become an international phenomenon, and audiences can look forward to a unique and genuinely terrifying motion picture experience. One piece of advice: do not see this film if you intend to go on an overnight hiking/camping trip in the near future. This is the kind of movie that will stay with you, and, once the sun has set and the critters in the underbrush start to make noise, images from The Blair Witch Project will leap to mind, and the tranquility of the woods will turn ominous.

Blair Witch Project, The (United States, 1999)

Director: Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick
Cast: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard
Screenplay: Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick
Cinematography: Neal L. Fredericks
Music: Tony Cora
U.S. Distributor: Artisan Entertainment
Run Time: 1:27
U.S. Release Date: 1999-07-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1