The Blair Witch Project

Friday, January 1, 1999

One last thing about the Blair Witch Project

One can’t help wondering if the people complaining about Blair Witch Project are the ones silly enough to have a few beers for courage and sit in the first five rows. Sit a reasonable distance from the screen and you’ll be fine. Ignore the backlash from the unreasonable waves of hype and you might actually like it.

BWP is very little to do with witches and witchcraft; its greatest strength may be its refusal to pin itself down to any single folklore beyond the townspeople’s crackpot grocery-store gossip. While this nicely lays the groundwork for some speculation about the conclusion, some of the best moments - the stick figures in the forest - are left alone without stuffing them into a specific set of Gremlinesque "Witchcraft Rules." For werewolf, a silver bullet, for mummy, a blowtorch, for vampire an order of scampi, but without adding a "From Dusk Till Dawn"* scene to review the steps for dealing with a witch, we can count out any chance of fighting and concentrate on the remaining options - which ain’t much: walk.

The escalating hysteria has nothing to do with any witch. While the low-budget 50s schlock that relied on zooming into the face of the victim wasn’t always terrifying, it had something going that Full Moon video doesn’t: knowledge that, while looking at something scary can be very unsettling ("In the Mouth of Madness"), looking at a rubber mask will often as not backfire (oh, let’s say "Blood Diner"). BWP is a rare creature among horror films, avoiding both of these possibilities by making creatures scarce and concentrating only on the victims, who can concentrate only on swirling concepts of myth and folklore.

This is what everybody’s so eager to talk about lately - unseen horror - but BWP is the only one to master the concept. Despite a small bit ofsuspense, the supposedly scary stuff in "Sixth Sense" is all seen. In "The Haunting" (1999), it’s all scene, and in "The Haunting" (1963), it might not even be there. In BWP, it’s unseen and very unknown, but the realization slowly dawns that it’s definitely something.

Haunting 99 played off Haunting 63 in this, the same way that failed Haunting 63: it sets itself up as psychological horror. Meaning it’s all an experiment to see if people in a scary house will drive themselves batty with fear or whether there is something in the house to do the job for them.

Yes, it’s very scary when you’re alone at home and hear a noise outside and don’t know what it is. Probably it’s much scarier when you know it’s not your imagination, but something coming to get you. It’s not knowing the specifics, not knowing how to stop it, that can get to you.

BWP delivers a few chilling moments - the figures, the stones, the climax - but don’t let those set the pace for you or you’ll miss the rest of the movie waiting for more such moments.

BWP doesn’t really need to be very scary. It’s at its best carefully pacing those few moments between stretches of dry quiet woods (no birds, no crickets, no chipmunks), as well contrasted as the weary day and tense, awake night. The stretches of day are not an exercise to create fear but a chance to study it: days as futile, shortening spans that become just a reprieve, not the safety of the sun’s rays but a lapse, a gasp that, in Harlan Ellison time-is-an-arrow terms, can do nothing but lead to night.

Heather, Mike and Josh are three kids in the woods whose situation is decreasingly likely, less plausible for them (but not for us**) and increasingly desperate - but the desperation has nowhere to go.

*Nothing against "From Dusk Till Dawn." I like it.

**This works as a very nice reversal of H’wood pics. Normally as Bruce Willis and Arnold S. get into more outlandish situations, they have little trouble accepting it, though the audience may not digest it so easily. Here, though the changes in mood are slight for the audience and the events vague enough to require a minimum of disbelief, the characters go through some severe stages of incredulity.

Rating: A- (Don&3039;t not believe the hype)

Reviewed by Matthew Abrams
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