The Blair Witch Project (1999)

D: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
S: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard

Make no mistake, The Blair Witch Project is a work of genius. Not the film: the film (which represents one component of the project on the whole) is a fairly interesting take on themes and situations seen many times throughout the history of the horror genre, perhaps most directly in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead (the characters even refer at one point to Deliverance, to which it also owes a definite debt). The Blair Witch Project is much more than just the film. It is arguably one of the most interesting products of postmodern art yet seen, a truly multi-media and even interactive experience which subtly redefines the current weaponry of film production, distribution, exhibition and promotion to meet the requirements of young, independent filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Kudos must be due to them for generating such massive hysteria and impressive box office returns over an investment of some $25, 000 in the production itself (who knows how much was expended on publicity by Artisan Entertainment). Some of the hype around the film centres on this, and it probably will inspire others (good and bad) to try the same thing. But the real power of The Blair Witch Project is that it is a totally immersive popular culture phenomenon which both captures and parodies the conventions of late twentieth century representation.

The Blair Witch Project is a combination of two films, a website and a publicity campaign calculated to induce uncertainty and discomfort about our fragile hold on reality as human beings. The film itself, which is what most people will be familiar with, is a semi-improvised docudrama (I'll clarify my use of this term instead of 'mockumentary' later) about three student filmmakers who get lost in the woods near Maryland while supposedly filming a documentary about a local myth. As a film, The Blair Witch Project is not bad. It's pacy, witty, generates some nice moments of suspense and tension, features full-bodied confrontation between characters and nicely charts the descent from arrogant apathy to terror and despair which all too many of the millennium generation desperately need. As narrative, it is primarily concerned with the change in character and attitude which comes over Heather Donahue, the 'director' of the documentary, who must face not only the rigours of a quasi-survivalist lifestyle, but fend off the challenge of retaining her authority over her male crew (Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard) as things go wrong. The film charts the arguments and crises they confront when mysterious events begin to transpire and it seems the crew are being stalked in the night by persons or creatures unknown (or perhaps dreamt of). Who or what is stalking them and why is actually less important than the effect it has, and it therefore comes as little surprise that the monster is little more than some miscellaneous noises and vague suggestions of the supernatural embodied in little piles of rocks and ominous stick figures found by the crew. It's not meant to be rational, nor does the horror/mystery element of the story eventually work itself out. But what does happen is that as the events get more extreme and the characters become more strung out, their certainty about themselves begins to disintegrate, until finally they are left with little but panic and remorse.

The Blair Witch Project is a docudrama not because the events are true or based on fact but because of the peculiar style and methods of production. It was shot in genuine outdoor locations using the equipment featured in the film itself (mostly Hi8 Video) operated in large part by the three actors (who use their real names). Communication with the directors was indirect and the cast were expected to improvise given the situations set up for them without rehearsal. In this sense the document of several days spend at close quarters outdoors has a profilmic referentiality which blurs the boundaries between performance and reality. Of course the rest is all narrative contrivance (anyone ever hear of a cell phone?). Granted to understand this you need access to another layer of information: the production notes supplied with the film and featured on the Region 1 DVD. This is a mark against the film as a film insofar as that matters to you, as it's hard to appreciate this quality unless you know more than the film can tell you on its own. However the visual style of the work does at least provide clues and suggest an appropriate approach to what you see. It replicates the look of a video vérité, and as the publicity campaign has made clear (again, outside diagetic space but nonetheless part of the film), it is supposed to be the raw footage found after the disappearance of the filmmakers. This too blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, and is a wholly suitable response to the budgetary challenge which the project presented for its makers. It is also a very clever way of tuning in to the current vogue for 'reality-based' television programming, and turning the whole 'hidden/confessional' camera back on itself. It exposes the manipulation inherent in this genre, and demonstrates our willingness to accept certain visual conventions (hand held camera, black and white, poor quality video images, foul language), as signifiers of authenticity. It also makes the film more atmospheric. Myrick and Sanchez (with the help of Donahue, Williams and Leonard) repeat the successes of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead) in this regard by turning a weakness into a strength and using the low budget look to make the fantastic seem believable.

Yet within the framework of the film itself, there are many unfortunate gaps and lapses. We don't get quite enough information on the Blair Witch herself for things to get properly chilling. Indeed the emphasis placed on a 1940s serial killer in the build-up (where the crew interview locals about the stories they have heard) keeps us all too focused on a 'natural' explanation for what's going on (the references to Deliverance and the discussion of rogue rednecks reinforce this interpretation, although, of course, it is not definitive). There is also perhaps too much unfocused hostility between the characters, though the film does nicely suggest that not all of our arguments lead to meaningful resolutions which advance the plot. There is a feeling that it goes on a bit longer than it needs to (again, arguably, this reinforces its 'realism'), and there are the constant nagging horror movie questions about why no-one has a cell phone and what precisely is served by running screaming through the woods with a video camera or by going inside the spooky old house, etc. It is also somewhat annoying to have only suggestions of explanations and snatches of histories which inform the myth which might or might not offer some thread of resolution. But of course it is all part of what the film is doing, leaving deliberate ellipses to keep us off balance, and its climax (which echoes that of the equally controversial Belgian film school experiment Man Bites Dog) does not so much end the story as stop it in its tracks.

This is where the multimedia event kicks in. The story is picked up at this point by the mockumentary (and this time that is what it is) The Curse of the Blair Witch, a brilliant piece of publicity which gives us the full details of the Blair Witch myth and charts the aftermath of the events portrayed in the film. This was distributed as pre-release publicity and screened on television stations here in Europe to build excitement, and thus most people who had seen it beforehand had the necessary data to paper the cracks in the filmic narrative (though, rather cleverly, it still doesn't provide a definitive answer because so many new possibilities are suggested. There's even the hilariously preposterous details of how the footage itself was found to add confusion). In itself this film is also a parody of representational conventions. From the wonderfully funny 'clip' from a seventies occult documentary series to the 'interviews' with law enforcement officers and excerpts from television broadcasts, it brilliantly apes the standard 'Unexplained/Mysterious World' type programme which co-exists on television schedules alongside the video vérités and 'reality-based' programmes which have so devalued documentary form in the past decade or so. It also deepens and adds to the whole Blair Witch Project itself, both supplementing the film and contributing to the atmosphere of mis/disinformation upon which it trades. The film is featured on the DVD, and this is probably just as well, making the DVD very much a different experience and a different form of exhibition than the film in the cinema. Further layers of detail can then be found at the website ( where excerpts from Heather's journal give insight into her character's motivations before and during the shoot and other miscellaneous tidbits fill in what we know from the two films and need to know to get the 'complete' picture. Then there's the distribution schedule, especially in Europe, where its theatrical release co-incided with Halloween (its video and DVD release in the US), when people are just crying out to be scared. A carefully planned slow-burn promotional campaign came to its climax with preview screenings and audience reactions on radio and television which built expectation to the point where people were ready for anything. This is all slightly more than the usual promotional gimmickry, although it makes use of the standard tools. It is in fact all essential to the experience that is The Blair Witch Project.It spans all of these things, and each part represents a different element of the whole. Watching The Curse of the Blair Witch is not the same as viewing a production documentary for "Batman Retires" or whatever, and surfing the website is not just about stealing images for personal entertainment. Though I'm not denying the exploitation is part of industrial capitalism, and we will doubtless see Gen X wannabes supporting T-Shirts, pins and hats for years to come, The Blair Witch Project is as much a commentary upon these things as a beneficiary. If 'commentary' is too strong a word, then perhaps think of it in terms of knowing self-referentiality, and in this case it is indie filmmakers, not a big studio, which has pulled out all the stops.

On the whole, The Blair Witch Project is a notable moment in late twentieth century postmodern art, blurring the distinctions between representational forms, between media and between reality and fantasy in such a way as to pose some serious questions about our concept of the world. Most people won't care about such academic postulation, and will simply ask the question: is the film scary? Well no, not really, not in my opinion. It is engrossing. It does draw you into its fictive world and it does have some eerie moments. But it is not frightening in the sense that it grips your soul and won't let go. There's something studied about it despite its veneer of free-form improvisation, and that may be as much because of our awareness of what it's doing as anything you see on screen. It does keep you thinking though, and there's a haunting quality to its uncertainties which has you dwelling over them for some time afterward, which is more than can be said for many contemporary horror films. It is worth watching, and it is certainly an essential viewing experience right here right now. How well it will stand the passage of time is another question, and it may well be that within a very short period, it will have moved into the realms of academic discourse and out of the popular sphere in a way that many of the true classics of the genre have not.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.