Maybe, just maybe, if that slogan had been plastered, guerrilla-style, onto every poster, TV spot, and trailer for The Blair Witch Project — yea, unto the very website itself — a lot of people would have headed into multiplexes with the correct frame of reference last summer. But it wasn’t, and why should it have been? Since distributor Artisan Entertainment has pulled down $140 million so far in theatrical grosses — the biggest box office take ever for an independent film, let alone a flyspeck cheapie that buzzed in from nowhere — and since filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wound up on the covers of TIME and Newsweek, wouldn’t you say that the hype had the desired effect? So what if it killed the experience of watching their movie?
Admit it, there was no bigger deflation this summer than paying to see what was (depending on what you read, heard, surfed, or believed) either the scariest film since The Exorcist or Actual Video Footage of Supernatural Terror, and finding, instead, this little bitsy…thing. Probably the only place where Blair Witch went over as intended was at ground zero — the Sundance Film Festival — where the frosty audience went in expecting another coy indie flick and got coldcocked by a grainy, suggestive chiller. After that, the black cat was out of the bag. There was no way for many people to watch the movie in a crowded theater without sensing cynical disappointment hopscotching from row to row. Even the budget became a liability: How seriously can you take a film that doesn’t even pay off with a money shot of the witch? As one senior member of this magazine’s editorial staff was wont to declare, mocking Blair Witch’s show-no-evil aesthetic: ”Look out! It’s a bunch of sticks!”
You could argue that The Blair Witch Project ticked so many people off because it dared to be different. You might opine that the rigid explicitness of modern horror, as dictated in films from Psycho to Scream, has made audiences callous to subtlety. You can say those things. I’ll just say that Blair Witch is one of the best creepy campfire-stories ever made, and that the only way to appreciate it as such is to watch it on a television. At home. With the lights out.
Now that the movie is being released on video (interestingly, not with the ”hot” video imagery seen in the TV ads but in the same muted tape-to-film transfer shown in theaters), you really should check it out if you’ve held off so far. It’s not just that the handheld footage makes more sense beaming out of the same small screen on which you watch your prom videos. Nor is it simply easier to buy into the movie’s central gimmick — that you’re watching the recovered record of three presumably dead filmmakers — without some Hollywood-fed jerk three rows back yelling ”This sucks!”
No, The Blair Witch Project works better at home because it’s a tale told close up, in a whispered voice around dying electron-gun embers. The slow progression of dread as the hapless threesome stumble around the woods, fighting and freaking and hearing shards of children’s laughter through their tent flap at night, is believably unnerving. The visuals unspool like found footage on the tail end of a camcorder tape; the jagged editing and banal dialogue refuse to flatter actors or audiences. The movie ends, as it should, with a question mark. These are all good things.
Yes, it’s a hoax, as is filmmaking by definition. But for what it’s worth, the directors’ gleeful manufacturing of urban legend is more artfully on display in the pseudo-documentary Curse of the Blair Witch, which originally aired on the Sci-Fi Channel and hits video at the same time as the feature (the two are packaged together on DVD). Both a back story to The Blair Witch Project and a fraudulent PR masterpiece to rank with the Hitler diaries and P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid, Curse is a 44-minute movie ad that never says it’s an ad — that concocts fake newscasts, archival film clips, and a hilariously trippy early-’70s documentary called Mystic Occurrences to buttress its case that The Blair Witch Project is the real deal. It’s required viewing if you want to understand the Blair Witch phenomenon. By contrast, all that’s necessary to enjoy the movie itself is the ability to forget everything you’ve heard. The Blair Witch Project: B+ Curse of the Blair Witch: A-