An intensely imaginative piece of conceptual filmmaking that also delivers the goods as a dread-drenched horror movie, "The Blair Witch Project" puts a clever modern twist on the universal fear of the dark and things that go bump in the night.

An intensely imaginative piece of conceptual filmmaking that also delivers the goods as a dread-drenched horror movie, “The Blair Witch Project” puts a clever modern twist on the universal fear of the dark and things that go bump in the night. Snapped up by Artisan at the start of the Sundance fest, this resourceful ultra-low-budgeter is probably too raw and lacking in the clockwork visceral jolts to go over with the general horror audience, but it’s effective enough that, with smart handling, it should be able to move beyond simple cult status.

The way the film was made has everything to do with how it plays out onscreen. An opening title card informs that, in October 1994, three young filmmakers hiked into the Black Hills Forest in Maryland to shoot a docu about the legend of the Blair Witch. The filmmakers were never heard from again, but a year later their footage was found, an edited version of which constitutes the present feature.

This information, of course, puts a chill into the viewer from the outset, since it guarantees that things did not turn out well. Writer-director-editors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez heightened the project’s verisimilitude by training their three actors to use cameras, then sent them out into the forest for eight days to shoot the picture themselves; certain destination points and encounters were established in advance, and notes to the thesps were left in baskets along the way. Otherwise, they were on their own, and improvised their way through a rigorous shoot without a clue as to how and when things were going to wind up.

All the visuals, therefore, are either hand-held, often jittery color video images taken by the bossy director and project organizer, Heather, or black-and-white 16mm shots lensed by the troupe’s tyro cameraman, the hippie-ish Joshua; regular guy Michael is along to record sound.

What they really could have used was a navigator. Expedition starts out with an expected optimism, and Heather interviews locals about the Blair Witch legend, which involves numerous mysterious disappearances and evidence of gruesome torture many years ago. Once into the forest, which is beginning to become brown and wet with the onset of autumn, Heather attempts to keep everyone’s spirits up despite the long daily slogs with heavy backpacks (“We’ll all look back on this and laugh heartily,” she interjects when the boys rightly become apprehensive that she’s gotten them lost), but terror sets in on the second night when they hear what sounds like people circling their tent and stepping on twigs and branches nearby.

Thus begins an awful succession of days taken up with endless walking and periods of willed level-headedness broken by fear-driven yelling and recriminations about how they ever got into this mess. Unable to find their way back to civilization, the trio is forced to set up camp every evening and, just as they fear they will, the bone-chilling noises continue; in the mornings, they emerge to find little rock piles and twig bundles that prove someone was there. As Heather says, “I’m scared to close my eyes, I’m scared to open them.”

Needless to say, nothing good comes of all this and the vise is effectively tightened not only by the increasingly perilous situation in which the threesome find themselves, but also by the filmmaking technique: the continuous point-of-view shots and, at night, the highly concentrated lighting keep the viewer’s range of vision extremely limited, creating a highly claustrophobic feeling and great apprehension over what might suddenly pop into frame. Without giving anything important away, the climax, which takes place in an ramshackle old house, is both intense and ambiguous, and will prompt significant debate even among the film’s fans.

Pic comes across as smart without feeling manipulative except in isolated moments, and serves as a reminder that effective horror stems much more from psychology than from graphic gore. All the same, the film builds up a sense of horrific expectation that it can’t quite match in its payoff. Thesps are uniformly naturalistic and palpably show the effects of little sleep and reduced rations as the eight-day nightmare wears on.

The Blair Witch Project

(Horror)

Production

An Artisan release of a Haxan Films presentation. (International sales: Haxan Films, Orlando, Fla.) Produced by Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie. Executive producers, Bob Eick, Kevin J. Foxe. Co-producer, Michael Monello. Directed, written, edited by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez.

Crew

Camera (color/b&w, video and 16mm-to-35mm), Neal Fredericks; music, Tony Cora; production designer, Ben Rock; art director, Ricardo R. Moreno; sound, Dana Meeks. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Midnight), Jan. 25, 1999. Running time: 87 MINS.

With

With: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard, Bob Griffith, Jim King, Sandra Sanchez, Ed Swanson, Patricia Decou.
Camera (color/b&w, video and 16mm-to-35mm), Neal Fredericks; music, Tony Cora; production designer, Ben Rock; art director, Ricardo R. Moreno; sound, Dana Meeks. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Midnight), Jan. 25, 1999. Running time: 87 MINS.
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