|In this episode: The Blair Witch Project | A Second Viewing|
The lines for this movie in L.A. have been staggering. On Sunday, lines for both ticket
holders and ticket buyers wrapped around opposide corners of the block! The movie sold
out all weekend, including the midnight shows. The hype was palpable and very real, and unlike
Star Wars hype, in the end this movie turns out to be worth it all.
First, a word about how you see this movie in the first place. Video tapes of it have been passed around L.A. for many months. I have met several people who saw it this way. In general, they have not liked it as much as the people who have gone to see it in theaters. Any movie is better in a theater, but it's majorly important for The Blair Witch Project. Which makes perfect sense.
The movie is a slow build of terror and stress and suspense. Being trapped in a theater in the dark only enhances these feelings while also allowing the story to arc without interruption. On video in a living room, the movie's delicate web of atmosphere can be easily torn by someone pausing the tape or turning on a light or getting a Coke from the fridge or even talking. This is not a flaw in the movie. In fact, it should be appreciated as a strength. The Blair Witch Project may be tailor-made for a future video release, but it belongs there in the flickering darkness of the movie house.
If you don't know the premise of the film, the poster says it best:
In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary.
A year later, their footage was found.
Oooooo! The film has been perfectly marketed as being real, that these were real student filmmakers and they really disappeared and their footage was really discovered and pieced together to make The Blair Witch Project. In fact, the Sci-Fi Channel is showing a pseudo-documentary about this pseudo-documentary, a fake companion piece to the fake movie that explores the mythology of the Blair Witch, the history of the filmmakers and their mysterious disappearance, and the even more mysterious discovery of the film and video tapes. I was going to warn you not to see this TV special before you see the film because that way the film remains a surprise. However, I think the movie will still have power if you decide to ignore me, and in fact watching the TV special may clear up a few things to make the movie even creepier.
Knowing what the premise of the film is to begin with, you should go in expecting exactly what you get: A low-budget, amateur-looking production. The movie would be a failure if it were instead some glossy, beautifully-shot widescreen spectacle with booming digital sound. Most of the movie is shot on video; some small parts are shot on black-and-white 16mm stock. The 16mm is what the crew is using for the actual film they're shooting (Blair Witch is a film about a film about a film), so some of the most ghostly images come on the film stock. The video footage is the crew's "making of" journalistic record (maybe you could say Blair Witch is a film about a film about a video of a film). Now, video transferred to film always looks terrible (something Mann Theaters needs to know next time they produce an in-theater promo--their brand new one is friggin' butt-ugly as all get-out!), but for Blair Witch, the grain and texture of video-to-film works to help create the moody atmosphere. This is another reason why I'm thinking the movie won't be as powerful on TV. Video on TV looks like video: bright and stark and flat and too clean, and so in the Sci-Fi Channel docu, the video footage from Blair Witch looked more like soap opera footage or clips from Cops. It didn't have that gritty feel that it did in the theater.
[NOTE: Having seen part of the movie on DVD now, I can say, yes, the hyper-bright look of the video segments takes something from the movie. Perhaps some people feel that video looks more "real," but I believe just the opposite. Blair Witch is better seen in a movie theater. --11/11/99] Accompanying the slipshod-looking images is a distinct lack of music. No music here to cue you in to when something scary's about to happen. Again, that would ruin the build of the movie. When you think about it, the music you usually hear in movies is unnatural. When you stand tall, looking out over a field toward a range of snow-capped mountains, the wind whipping your hair and bending the tall, slender grass, you are not going to hear a Jerry Goldsmith-penned orchestral bombast flooding the moment. Unless you're wearing a Walkman. And if you're hunkering in a tent, lost in the woods where strange and unexplainable things are happening, you're not going to hear a tremolo of violins wafting on the heavy air. Unless you're being stalked by the ghost of Paganini. Similarly, a strange noise in a movie is not all that strange because, along with the unnatural music, you are usually treated to a cacophony of unnaturally-enhanced sound effects. It's even common in a spooky movie to accompany a spooky noise with spooky music to let you know how spooky the spooky noise is.
Now imagine being alone in the woods, shivering in your tent. You are lost, you are hungry, you are cold, and you are there because you've been hunting an evil witch. Then you hear noises. But you can't tell what they are. And they are faint. In fact, you may not even be sure you're hearing them. So you stumble out of the tent and look through the darkness, which is swollen around the feeble flood light shining from your camera. This is The Blair Witch Project experience. All the sounds in the film are natural. Well, the spooky sounds may have been added later or enhanced, but in a very naturally supernatural way. You can see nothing except the occasional tree trunk illuminated by your light. The sound is at once recognizable and indefinable, and at first very quiet. You strain with the characters on screen to hear and see. It is unnerving. It is truly spooky.
Excuse me now while I talk about some details which may ruin the movie. I suggest you
STOP READING NOW
STOP READING NOW
if you wanna keep things a surprise. You can pick up the summary in the last paragraph, if you like.
To pick the thread back up... you are as clueless as the characters in the film. They see nothing, you see nothing. The brilliance of this movie is that there is nothing to see. Nothing is shown. You have no idea, really, what the hell is going on. Even at the end, when the characters finally meet whatever it is that's been stalking them and confront it face-to-face, you don't see anything because the cameras have fallen to the floor. There is no finale to bring us all to some kind of closure. There is no closure of any kind. Just one frightening, shocking, sad shot from Heather's camera of... Well, I won't mention that one at all. But you see nothing. It is excellent.
Now that I'm in the spoilers section, I'd like to talk freely about some more of the movie.
I won't waste time talking about how the actors improvised most of their lines because you can find all those details on the Web or in any number of magazines. Let me just say that the process was a success. Director-writers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez deserve praise. While the improvisation works most of the time, the semi-scripted bits tend to stick out. But those moments are rare (the map bit was the worst), and the actors do an amazing job. What I enjoyed most about the performances was their realism. All the characters changed constantly as their situation got worse. I was worried at first that Heather (Heather Donahue) would be the "mediocre actor downfall" of the movie, but then I realized that part of that was her character. As the movie goes along, Heather moves from a control freak who feels she must stay strong at all times to a sobbing, scared girl afraid for all their lives and apologetic that she led them to this fate. The move is nicely gradual, with punctuations of anger and cool control. Her unnaturalness at the beginning is the unnaturalness anyone has when "performing" in front of a video camera. No, Heather turned out to be excellent.
Josh (Joshua Leonard) is the stoner guy. You can't tell me this guy hasn't smoked more than his doctor's recommended dose of weed. He's got his opinions, has his say in matters, and he becomes the one trying to keep Mike and Heather from pummeling each other. He tries to be the voice of reason, but he's not terribly effective. He starts his slump into depression after Mike admits to tossing the map in the stream. When he finds his belongings scattered and covered with slime (never explained!), he becomes introverted and weird. Josh's breaking moment is when he's by himself at the tree and Mike is trying to convince Heather to leave him alone just for five minutes. Nice.
I think my favorite personality change came from Mike (Michael Williams). He does a great back-and-forth. As the "outsider," the character who was brought into the project without knowing much about it or the other two crew members, he's the first to lose his cool. He has a wide-eyed, simmering look that shows up at the first signs of their being lost. He becomes easily angered. He's accusatory, confronting Heather on her ability to lead. This morphs into a "fuck it all" attitude, like he's angrily resigned to their fate. Then he withdraws into himself, becoming quiet and scared, very puppy-dog-like. As Joshua collapses then disappears and as Heather slowly falls apart, Mike becomes stronger, telling Heather to keep her hopes up. He becomes the leader when she can't lead any more. It's an amazing transformation.
One of the potentially biggest flaws of this movie is the cameras. Why, if you're lost in the woods and fighting to survive, would you still bother to use the cameras? Heather, being prodded cruelly by Josh on this subject, explains that it's all she has left. It's not a hokey statement at all. You believe her because of her performance. She really does think only of film. It is her life, it's what she's always wanted and dreamed of doing. So when all is hopeless, of course she would keep shooting footage. Just the idea that someone someday might find it and see it would be enough for her. It's like a diary. You keep it for yourself, but there's always that thought in the back of your head that, someday, when you're gone, someone will read it and understand who you were. I can say, too, that Heather reminded me of many people in film school. She is especially believable because she's a woman student filmmaker. It is not sexist to say that women, to get what they want in the film world, have to demonstrate an unwavering and confident strength. It's similar in the corporate world, but I've seen it more acutely in the film world. Catherine has told me this herself, that she had to be that way when we were making A Pound of Flesh and even later as her career moved along. I'm sure she will identify with Heather. (We'll see if I get a mad e-mail after this!)
There's another device that elegantly supports the use of cameras right up to the end. I think it's Mike who makes the comment while looking through the video camera that he understands why Heather always has it to her eye. It's fake. What's happening to them is not really happening. How true! When you have your eye to the viewfinder, you're filtering life through the camera. This observation has a brilliant connection to the end of the film as Mike and Heather race to the abandoned house looking for Josh. By then, they are both frazzled and mentally spent, so they both grab a camera and use it to look through while running through the woods and exploring the house. They're hoping the cameras will filter away the fear.
So the footage that might at first seem illogical becomes logical. The movie's foundation is solid.
Finally, what exactly is it that is hunting these people? You never know. It could be a serial killer. It could be some loner maniac. It could be the Blair Witch herself. Or, as Ken suggested, it could even be Josh. This last one is more complicated; it implies that though someone or something really is stalking Heather and Josh and Mike, it's Josh who goes mad in the end and actually kills his companions. While you may not buy that explanation, the point is that you can argue in favor of it! The movie is open to many interpretations and thus creates the perfect atmosphere for discussion. We know who Keyser Soze is, but we'll never know who the Blair Witch is.
This is a film worth seeing again, and I can't wait to do so. I want to deconstruct it some more. The film is only in 27 theaters right now, but it's opening wide on July 30. Go see it! You won't jump out of your seat, but you will get the lasting creeps. Lasting creeps are scarier.
A Second Viewing
I saw The Blair Witch Project again this weekend (Bowfinger was sold out). I was wondering if it would work on me like it had the first time, especially with a smaller audience. Though the build-up of creepiness was not as intense, by the time Josh disappears and you hear him screaming in the night, my skin was crawling just like the first time. The ending, too, with it's fantastic shot of Mike just standing there, was chilling. I did notice that the audience was divided more obviously this time. Some people got up right away and walked out while saying it was a stupid movie. Others of us sat through the credits, listening to that eerie "music" building to the very end, enjoying each scrap. You could call it a little slice of America: People hate the movie or really like it.
|©1999 Steven Lekowicz|