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blair witch project

reviewed by Joshua Ellis

The sky is darkening like a stain
Something's going to fall like rain
And it won't be flowers.
--W.H. Auden

No one here gets out alive.
--Jim Morrison

Stephen King pointed out in his excellent overview of the horror genre Danse Macabre that the best horror fiction is the fiction which never shows the monster. The door is never opened, King says; we never see what's behind it...and that is far, far worse, because it leaves our minds to speculate. What in the name of God is that?

The Blair Witch Project opens the door, but it never quite shows you what's behind it. You see the frame of this mythical door, and what lovely wainscoting...and while you've been looking at that, well...you're dead.

As anybody who's seen this modest film's massive hype engine at work knows, it is the story of three student filmmakers--Heather, Josh, and Mike--who have traveled to the small town of Burkittsville, Maryland (formerly known as Blair) to make a spooky documentary about a local legend--the Blair Witch. As you are told via title card at the beginning of the film, the three disappeared while making the documentary. The film you are seeing, you are further told, is all that remains of them--the film from their 16mm camera and their video camera. The website for the film, www.blairwitch.com, adds detail to the story, as have a few well-placed mockumentary TV pieces. Apparently, these additional sources of info tell you, this film was found in a backpack found forty feet below an abandoned house--in undisturbed earth.

But all of this is immaterial, as is the question of the film's basis in reality (which is none; it is fictional from start to finish). What is important is the slow, visible unraveling of the sanity of the three students and the reality around them.

The beginning of the film is reassuringly safe: the three students packing up, heading out, drinking shots in a motel room in Burkittsville. Likewise safe is their pushy documentary film, asking local residents about the legend. And it's all very, very realistic--down to the counter girl at the restaurant's remark about "I've always, like, you know, believed in witches and stuff like that." The story builds. Apparently, a local hermit went insane in the 1940s and began killing children. A homeboy in downtown Burkittsville tells the filmmakers "Yeah, and like, when he'd kill them, he'd make one face the corner while he killed the other one, and then he'd kill the other one too." There are other stories: one old curmudgeon tells the filmmakers that it happen in the 1890s and, in a moment worthy of an old Scooby Doo episode, mutters "Damnfool kids never listen to no one."

It's when they head out into the woods to actually look for the Blair Witch that things begin to fall apart. They begin to hear noises outside of their tent--strange crackling noises, like something big walking over the broken branches that cover the floor of the woods. And it's all around them. And then they get lost.

The best horror, as Stephen King would undoubtedly tell you, is subtle. A great example of a subtle horror story is Shirley Jackson's The Haunting Of Hill House, a film remake of which debuted a week before The Blair Witch. The Haunting in its current incarnation achieves some fine moments (LiliTaylor's bedroom becomes a face staring at her, for example), but on the whole, it's about as subtle as an axe handle across the bridge of your nose. Shirley Jackson's source novel, like Blair Witch, has nary a special effect in it--no statues grabbing Liam Neeson and dragging him into a pool of bloody water, no giant faces in the walls...and it manages to be at least eighty billion times more frightening than its most recent cinematic treatment.

The Blair Witch Project is not horrifying. It would be much less effective if it were. It's unnerving, on a level I've never seen before in film. The filmmakers come across a clearing filled with makeshift human figures fashioned from tree limbs, all hanging at head level from trees. There are piles of stones found surrounding their tents when they wake up in the morning, in numerically rising numbers. And then there's the ending.

A great deal of the film's effectiveness is also due to the technical aspect of it. It tells you that what you're seeing is handheld 16mm and digital video footage, and it is. It's not even widescreened. Through the whole film, you're watching extremely jerky, grainy footage in black and white (16mm) and washed out color (video). And so you can't tell quite what you're looking at...and you can't tell what Heather, Josh and Mike are seeing, or why they're screaming so loudly...and you can barely hear the voices out beyond the small circle of light generated by their cameras and flashlights. You can't tell what those voices are saying...and you find yourself being almost thankful for it. It leaves you asking yourself exactly where these woods are at...and whether they're in Maryland at all.

The emotional climax of the film is the scene which figures prominently in the movie's trailers: Heather, sitting in the dark, the video camera inches from her face, completely insane, apologizing incoherently to her family and the families of the other two. "It's my fault we're out here...hungry, tired...hunted..." she says, but of course it is not her fault at all: the filmmakers were dead from the moment they parked their car by the side of the road and strapped on their backpacks. But it's her face, running with tears and snot, eyes flicking back and forth to the woods outside of the camera's field of vision, completely stripped of any pretense that any of this is in any way explicable and that any of them are going to go home safe...it's her face that will stay with you.

It is a combination of all of these elements which make The Blair Witch Project probably the best horror film ever made. I found myself thinking of H.P. Lovecraft through the film, and his blasphemous, crawling things--too horrifying, he insists, to tell his readers of, for fear that they might go mad. And it was Lovecraft I thought of in the last split second shot of the film, which is hands down the most frightening thing I've ever seen in any movie at any time, a shot which left me leaving the theater disoriented and unsure of where I was--knowing nothing but thanking whatever God there may be that I wasn't out in those woods.

Those damned woods.

end

b i o

Josh Ellis has worked at Mondo 2000, Revolting!, and Axcess Magazine. He currently resides in the Las Vegas area.



The writer of this article welcomes your comments: josh@mindjack.com