"The Blair Witch Project" has received so much advance press that you probably already know that it is a "mockumentary" that's received rave reviews on the festival circuit. And that's too bad since all that attention ultimately does a disservice to the audience.
Those who go into the film cold are of course more likely to experience thrills and chills than those who know what they're getting into--the second group, however, can expect an unsettling experience, capped by a couple of jolts at the finish, as the film's twists and turns are impossible to predict and do generate low-key suspense. Some rave quotes suggest that you're in for a scare of "Exorcist" proportions, whereas "Blair Witch" is essentially an exceedingly ingenious diversion.
In short, the film is a clever, entertaining stunt, no more, no less, and a terrific calling card for its fledgling filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez.
An opening statement tells us that on Oct. 21, 1994, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams hiked into Maryland's Black Hills Forest to shoot a documentary on a local legend of the so-called Blair Witch, a woman named Elly Kedward who was supposed to have caused half the youngsters of Blair village to vanish more than 200 years ago. In 1824, the town of Burkittsville was founded on the site of Blair; between November 1940 and May 1941, the town was rocked by the ritualistic slayings of seven children by a local hermit named Rustin Parr, who, after giving himself up, tells authorities that he did it for "an old woman ghost."
Once we're informed that the student filmmakers disappeared without a trace but that we will be looking at the footage they shot--found a year later--we are abruptly thrust into the quickly menacing world of that footage. The filmmakers have taken tremendous pains to bring to it enough coherence so that we can be involved in the students' plight as it unfolds yet maintain enough jaggedness so that "Blair Project's" fakery is utterly convincing.
Leonard serves as cinematographer, shooting in 16 millimeter, while Williams is the project's sound man. In the meantime Heather records the group's growing rifts on High-8 video and her comments on those rifts; this is an unobtrusive and persuasive device that provides a crucial narrative flow in a completely natural way.
Heather, whose project it is, comes off as headstrong and determined to maintain control of her shoot at all costs. She's strong on using all the correct terms for the shoot-from-the-hip kind of documentary she's trying to make. There's something highhanded, a little condescending and insensitive about Heather as she goes about interviewing locals before she and her crew enter the forest, where they quickly get lost and soon become subjected to a series of mysterious and malevolent incidents.
The men become outraged at Heather for the predicament she got them into, but all three young people are smart enough to know that if they are to have a hope of making it out of the forest they've got to pull together.
All three are playing roles, although they use their actual names, and the way in which Myrick and Sanchez make improvisation work within their outline, keeping their cast in the dark and off balance as much as possible, is nothing less than amazing. You can, if you want, buy into the possibility of supernatural forces acting as the prime mover or believe the trio has fallen victim to some unseen person or people who simply are in the grip of madness. Donahue, Leonard and Williams are as absolutely believable as everything else about the film.
If you're willing to look beyond the fright tactics in "Blair Witch," you can enjoy it as a kind of mordant commentary on the presumptuousness of brash and inexperienced documentary filmmakers who, in this extreme instance, plunge into a forest wilderness with woefully inadequate preparation and who actually think they will somehow be able to record supernatural manifestations on film. In the final analysis, "Blair Witch" is perhaps more amusing and satisfying as a cautionary tale deflating a certain kind of filmmaking arrogance than it is as an offbeat horror show.
* MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: includes situations too intense and frightening for children.
'The Blair Witch Project'
Heather Donahue: Heather
Michael Williams: Michael
Joshua Leonard: Joshua
An Artisan Entertainment presentation. Writers-directors-editors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Producers Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie. Executive producers Bob Eick and Kevin J. Foxe. Cinematographer Neal Fredericks. Music Tony Cora. Production designer Ben Rock. Art director Richard R. Moreno. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
Exclusively at the Nuart through July 29, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.