The Blair Witch Project

on July 14, 1999 by Ray Greene
   One of the more stylistically accomplished debuts at this year's Sundance Film Festival came out of competition in the more mainstream Park City at Midnight category, which is usually dedicated to youth comedies and exploitation-type movie fare. An almost flawless "mockumentary," "The Blair Witch Project" uses the fictional conceit of a vanished documentary film crew to wring a surprisingly original brand of horror out of what would have been standard genre material given a different approach. Based on a true-life legend, "The Blair Witch Project" chronicles the disappearance of a three-person film crew at work on an amateurish "labor of love" documentary about a demonic apparition in the Black Hills region of Maryland. The expertly faked "raw footage" that makes up the film is supposedly all that survives of the crew that created it.
   Alternating between the 16mm black-and-white dailies of the "documentary" itself and the "video diary" of the fictional project's director (Heather Donahue), "The Blair Witch Project" achieves a harrowing sense of subjective dread, as Donahue's shoot unravels in the face of increasingly aggressive and hostile attacks from unseen forces of the night.
   Credit for the film's impact goes to co-writer/directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, who set extreme visual limitations on their work and then wring every conceivable variation for tension and suspense out of the approach. The fact that the audience "sees" events in a constant and elliptical present tense which conforms to the point of view of the Blair Witch "victims" creates an almost unbearable sense of claustrophobia and confinement. In largely improvised performances, the three-person principal cast of Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard do such a believable job of embodying amateur moviemakers that many attendees at this year's Sundance Fest were shocked to discover "The Blair Witch Project" was a carefully manufactured counterfeit, rather than the "actual" documentary it so closely resembles.
   Acquired by the increasingly gutsy indie distribution house Artisan, which did such a fine job handling Darren Aronofsky's "Pi" last year, "The Blair Witch Project" could prove a tough sell for audiences unwilling to sit still for its intentional technical crudities. But Sanchez and Myrick have proven all over again that the tradition of low-budget horror epitomized by the early works of directors like John Carpenter, George Romero and Don Coscarelli is alive and kicking. And who knows? Given the fractured, mixed-media approach that proliferates on such teen market fixtures as commercial television and MTV, "The Blair Witch Project" may prove just the type of movie capable of causing an elite and jaded segment of the youth audience to willingly suspend disbelief. Starring Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard. Written, directed and edited by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. Produced by Gregg Hale and Robin Cowie. Horror. An Artisan release. Rated R for language. Running time: 87 min
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