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The Blair Witch Project

Into the woods

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo S nchez

With Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard

Before I saw The Blair Witch Project, my opinion of horror films was rather low; after I saw it, this opinion became even lower. For Blair Witch Project is a mixture of two films: a horror film and a character study. And, as a horror film, it’s rather good, being creepy, atmospheric and spooky -- but all it ultimately does is distract from the character study. And this I can’t forgive, because this character study is just about brilliant.

The whole movie is assembled from the footage of three student filmmakers, who disappeared in the forest while filming a documentary about a local legend: the fabled and feared Blair Witch. The two-day hike in a forest turns longer than expected when the students get lost in the woods. That’s it, really, and nothing else is necessary to create a shockingly effective portrayal of degenerating humanity, when their food and confidence start disappearing. This is not entirely original (anyone who read The Lord of the Flies will recognize some similarities), but it’s nonetheless thrilling and grim at the same time.

The footage, of course, is fake, and the students are actors, and the story, legend, and all the mythology is the product of the screenwriters/directors’ imagination -- but it’s unnervingly realistic. The reason for this, of course, is that it was filmed in the most realistic manner conceivable, as a triumph of ultra-low-budget filmmaking and method acting. Three actors (playing the characters under their real names) were sent into a forest with a camcorder and a 16mm camera, to follow, like in a scavenger hunt, a trail decided upon by the directors.

At every point, the actors would find more film, some food, and brief directing notes, which each actor would study in secret from the other two. And then they would improvise, and it’s here that Blair Witch Project acquires its greatest strength. These improvisations seem shudderingly realistic -- probably because they are. These three no-name actors remained in character for their complete week-long ordeal. And, like their characters, they were cold, hungry, suffering from lack of sleep, and greatly disturbed by strange noises at night.

All that would have been great, and the three-character drama has several nearly sublime moments, especially when Heather Donahue is on screen (best acting job this year so far, hands down). But, now and again, the strange noises, weird pile of rock, and figures made from sticks and twine starts obscuring the characters, and the film more and more becomes a horror movie; a good one, no doubt, but it hardly feels brilliant anymore.

The conclusion is frantic, and almost unbearably intense. It’s also facile and too timid for its own good, because it leaves people wondering “what happened, after all?” -- and there are several possible scenarios (at least one of which doesn’t involve any supernatural stuff), and therefore there’s very little emotional value. The film also employs a minor cheat by presenting two last shots switched around, and I can’t see any point to that other than confusing the viewers.

So, while the horror part is good, it’s nothing to write home about, simply because of the inherent genre limitation. But the drama part stays, and it is ultimately haunting.