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.
The Blair Witch Project was an innovative movie. Never will you see a movie with more creative inspiration. Its impact on moviemaking is yet to be seen, but it is certain that it has become a cultural phenomenon.
1999 will go down in film history as the year it was proven that there were no boundaries to what could be shown on screen. The Matrix proved that only the imagination was the limit of what special effects could portray. American Beauty proved that fine storytelling could triumph over trite Hollywood sentimentality. South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut proved that the concept of obscenity is a thing of the past. And The Blair Witch Project proved that conventional storytelling and film technique could be discarded in favor of running around the forest with a video camera.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never was so much accomplished with so little by so few. With a budget of $22,000, a black-and-white 16mm camera, and a 8mm camcorder purchased at Circuit City, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made a movie that has grossed $141 million to date in the United States. The movie you see onscreen was filmed entirely by the three actors while enduring the conditions that their characters were undergoing.
The movie’s success with the audience hinges on one simple belief: that the viewer thinks that The Blair Witch Project is a documentary, that the footage really was found buried under an abandoned house, that Heather, Mike, and Josh are really dead. Of course it’s just a movie. Of course they’re not really dead. It’s the same hook that the Coen brothers used with Fargo. If you believe that what you are seeing is real, it will be all the more shocking and emotionally gripping. What separates The Blair Witch Project from Fargo is the sheer force that Myrick and Sanchez used to intensify the illusion. Over 100,000 people visited www.blairwitch.com prior to the wide release of the movie. At the site, they could read the (fictional) history of Burkittsville, the Blair Witch “legend,” and the biographies of the (supposedly) deceased student filmmakers who “disappeared” in 1994. They built an entire mythology around their movie, and it worked.
The Blair Witch Project opened in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, about two weeks after it hit the rest of the nation. I’m one of those sort of people who reads all of the Internet rumors and spoilers, so I pretty much knew that the movie was just a movie before I stepped foot in the theatre. It was showing at the crappiest theatre in town. At one time it was what passed for a movie palace in this small town, but now it’s rather run-down and should be put out of the moviegoer’s misery. For some reason Regal Cinemas (the chain that now owns it) insists on showing high-profile movies like Blair Witch and American Beauty there, so often it’s a struggle: brave the lousy theatre, or take the chance the movie will move to a better theatre in two months. I braved the lousy theatre.
I had heard that the jerky camera made some viewers vomit, but the only thing that made me nauseous was the sheer volume of oil in the popcorn. I had mixed feelings about the movie itself. The promotional bandwagon made it sound like it was “scarier than The Exorcist.” Now, The Exorcist was one of the few horror movies to really give me the creeps, and Blair Witch hardly had that effect on me. The ending confused the heck out of me, but discussing it with my wife (who got into it much more than I did) enlightened me somewhat. What really impressed me was the courage (or nerve) of the filmmakers to use filming techniques that just aren’t acceptable in “mainstream” moviemaking. If you look closely, you can find the traditional three-act structure, but I think that, because of the way the movie was shot, the structure was enforced during the editing process.
Artisan receives well-deserved kudos for their DVD presentation of The Blair Witch Project. I’ve touched on the mythology of the movie; the DVD is another element of the building of that mythology. Everything about how the movie is treated on the disc adds to the illusion. The scene access menu doesn’t list chapter numbers — it lists the chapters as “Day One,” “Night One,” et cetera. The beautifully animated menus use elements of the mythology, such as the child’s handprints and the stick figures. The deleted scene is referred to as “newly discovered footage.”
The movie itself is presented full-frame. The image is matted with a 16mm-style frame, just as it was presented in the theatres. Audio is in stereo. It’s impossible to give meaningful comments about the audio or video because of the nature of the movie. Any flaws you see with the picture are inherently part of the movie (such as the noise at the bottom of every shot from the camcorder). I did not notice any digital artifacts. The disc is dual layered. The movie is on one layer, while the supplemental materials are on the other. The movie is encoded at a very high bitrate — during “busier” scenes, it was not uncommon for the bitrate meter on my Sony DVD player to remain at 10 Mbps for several seconds. The average bitrate seemed to be in the 5-7 Mbps range.
The extras are very generously provided. In addition to the aforementioned deleted scene, there is production notes, cast and crew biographies, trailers (three for Blair Witch, one for Artisan’s DVD The Stand), a timeline of the Blair Witch mythology, a documentary, and a commentary track. The latter two are the most noteworthy extras. The documentary is “The Curse of the Blair Witch.” It was originally broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel prior to the movie’s release. Next to the film’s website, it was the element that most strongly enforced the mythology and the movie’s “factual” basis. It includes interviews with the trio’s family, news broadcasts, and footage of the discovery of their film and tapes. If I didn’t know it was just a movie, this documentary would have fooled me. The documentary is about 45 minutes in length. It’s a very nice addition, especially considering the VHS version is sold separately. The directors discuss the mythology and the technical problems encountered during the shoot on the commentary track. I would have preferred more information on the back story, but on the whole it was entertaining and informative.
The film was subject to derision by those who had been duped by the promotional materials. Many people can’t tolerate the low production values of the movie itself, or don’t find it that scary. The three students argue like cast members of MTV’s The Real World during the entire movie, despite the directors’ assertions that the vindictiveness was toned down in the final cut.
Despite its flaws, few can deny that The Blair Witch Project was an innovative and creative endeavor. I can find no fault with the DVD presentation. For fans of the movie, the DVD is a must-buy. If you didn’t happen to catch it during the theatrical run, I would certainly recommend a rental.
I should mention that not even a film as unique or inspired as The Blair Witch Project can survive the vile clutches of the Hollywood Sequel Machine. A follow-up film is in the casting stages as I write this review. From my understanding, Myrick and Sanchez are not involved in the production. A sequel and a prequel are being planned.
On one last note, I searched high and low for a link to the Cartoon Network’s parody, “The Scooby Doo Project.” If you can happen to catch a broadcast, it’s pretty entertaining.