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The Blair Witch Project
Director: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
Screenplay: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
Stars: Heather Donahue (Heather Donahue), Michael C. Williams (Michael Williams), Joshua Leonard (Joshua Leonard)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1999
Country: USA

There are so few movies nowadays that are worth talking about after you've left the theater. Too many movies are ephemeral--they simply dissolve and dissipate out of your mind even as the credits are rolling.

"The Blair Witch Project" is not one of those movies.

In fact, this $20,000 independent feature, written, edited, and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, is one of the most uniquely frightening, buzz-worthy features to come out in years. After becoming the talk of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, it single-handedly revived the idea that good, independently made movies can explode out of the film festival circuit ala "sex, lies, and videotape" (1989) and "Pulp Fiction" (1994). In its first week of wide release, "The Blair Witch Project" pulled in almost $30 million, and it has generated a small industry of gossip, rumor, and speculation on countless web sites dedicated to its discussion.

Oh, and did I mention the movie is scary? I know others have already used this phrase, but I will use it again simply because I cannot think of another way to put it that does the movie justice: "The Blair Witch Project" is scary as hell.

It takes the form of a pseudo-documentary made by three Maryland film students who are researching the local legend of the Blair Witch. An opening title card informs us that they went into the Black Hills Forest of Maryland in 1994 to complete this project, and were never heard from again. The movie purports to be the recovered footage from their High-8 video and 16 mm cameras that explains what happened to them.

The movie's brilliance lies in this misleadingly simplistic set-up. During its opening moments, the film plays like a bad home movie, with the three film students (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, all using their real names) get prepared for the trip. Much of it is humorous, as the three argue and joke amongst themselves, drink booze and smoke cigarettes. The majority of the film is shot on the High-8 videocamera, and it gives the film a shaky, improvised, and utterly realistic feel. Before being told, most initial audiences did not know the film was fictional.

However, there is much more going on in "The Blair Witch Project" than what appears on the surface. Although it was shot over eight days with the actors doing most of the camerawork themselves, this is a meticulously put together horror film. It is never graphically violent, but it is increasingly gripping. Once the students get lost in the woods, and strange things begin happening at night, the movie grows in stomach-churning intensity until the shocking, inevitable conclusion.

Myrick and Sanchez do an excellent job of generating chills with editing and sound effects alone. Many of the scariest scenes take place in pitch blackness, where all we can hear is the terrified breathing of the three students trapped inside their tent and the strange noises that seem to be coming from all around them. The noises vary from night to night, sometimes sounding like footsteps or rocks being clanked together. But then, when one of the students disappears, the night is filled with terrified screams of agony, all of which we experience as the characters do. By putting us in a point-of-view situation, inside the dark tent, unable to see but able to hear, Myrick and Sanchez draw us into the movie and refuse to let us go.

"The Blair Witch Project" works, not only because of its original and unique style of production, but because the three central actors create believable, authentic characters. Heather Donahue (the director), Michael Williams (the sound guy), and Joshua Leonard (the cameraman) all come across as natural and unmannered. One of the greatest detriments to independent and amateur filmmaking is that the acting usually draws attention to itself. Not here. Donahue, Williams, and Leonard are all convincing in their panic, in their fear, and in the way they fight amongst themselves once they realize they are lost in the woods and are likely to die there.

The movie's best scene is also perhaps its most simple. Near the end, when death is imminent, Heather turns the videocamera on herself and offers a tearful apology to her mother and to the mothers of Josh and Michael, taking the blame for their tragic situation. The camera is angled so that we only see her terrified, tear-stricken eyes while she speaks in an exhausted whisper, and in those eyes and in her disembodied voice we experience more fear than any number of elaborate special effects or hokey jump-out-of-the-dark techniques could ever generate.

¬Overall Rating: (4)

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