Eleven years ago, documentary-style horror phenomenon The Blair Witch Project grossed over $140 million at the U.S. box office. Shot for only $60,000, the film was marketed as a real documentary about three students who ventured into the woods near Burkittsville, Md., to explore the town's dark legend and were never seen again. Although audience reactions were mixed, The Blair Witch Project's success led other filmmakers to emulate its style in films like Open Water, [REC], Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. Making its Blu-ray debut, the film holds up as an entertaining piece of cinematic history.
Film students Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams shoot the expository opening to their documentary before hiking into the woods for the weekend to document the legend of the Blair Witch. Some townspeople are skeptical and others become agitated when asked about the witch. Two fishermen encountered on the trail hold stock in the legend. Undaunted, the trio heads toward Coffin Rock, the site of a grizzly mass murder in the 1800s, and then to an old cemetery full of stone piles. That night, their rest is disturbed by strange sounds in the woods. When the team moves to return to society the following day, they realize they are lost and without a map. Things begin to unravel badly as the characters blame each other for their predicament and the night terrors become increasingly pronounced.
In the months prior to the film's July 1999 release, distributor Artisan Entertainment - now part of Lionsgate - created an effective marketing campaign announcing the discovery of the students' documentary footage. What audiences experienced in theaters was revolutionary to some, boring to others and nauseating to many. The film's chaotic camera work, chatterbox lead female character and lack of bloodshed were sore spots for those hoping The Blair Witch Project would be straightforward horror. More than a decade later, the hype and backlash are memories, and it is easier to experience the film without preconceptions.
What remains is a solid, well-conceived parlor trick that crawls under the skin despite its humble origins. My teenage self did not appreciate the 70 minutes of walking and talking that precede the film's climax, but I now realize these scenes taken together make the film compelling. Three normal, relatable people find themselves in a bad situation and take turns teetering on the edge of a not-undeserved breakdown. I did not fully buy this drama in 1999, but now realize I truly do believe the three actors are facing unfathomable terror outside their tent during the film's scant 82 minutes.
Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez and the film's three leads have yet to find success in Hollywood equal to that of The Blair Witch Project, but maybe audiences still think they are lost in the woods. Once in a while a film will come along and stick into the collective conscience. Easily one of the most recognizable movies of the twentieth century, The Blair Witch Project is such a film. Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project has been emulated, parodied and endlessly debated, but none of this can negate its place in cinematic history.
The Blair Witch Project is a Best Buy exclusive until October 5, 2010.
Lionsgate presents The Blair Witch Project in its original theatrical 1.33:1 presentation on this Blu-ray. It is not windowboxed like the earlier DVD. Shot on hand-held 16mm and Hi-8 video, the film is neither slick nor pretty. Fortunately, Lionsgate has respected the source, and the Blu-ray accurately reproduces the theatrical experience. The action is clear enough, the grain remains, and detail and contrast are slightly improved over the DVD. Some minimal clean-up and scratch removal seems to have been done, too. The Blair Witch Project looks just fine.
Presented in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, the film's soundtrack is not explosive but gets the job done. That the filmmakers chose to forego a 5.1 mix to retain the film's documentary feel is understandable, but the terror in the woods could have been heightened with some surround action. That said, the 2.0 mix is generally clear and well-balanced during scenes of dialogue. It is more difficult to discern the individual sounds that the characters react to, especially during scenes of chaos. English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
Lionsgate has included most of the extras previously available on the Special Edition DVD and added a set of exclusive alternate endings to the Blu-ray. These endings are very similar to that in the film but offer a glimpse at what was likely a long process to decide which had the most impact.
Directors Myrick and Sánchez and producers Rob Cowie, Greg Hale and Mike Monello are featured on the commentary. There are a lot of voices to provide interesting information about the film's shoot, characters and impact, and the track is consistently enjoyable.
Next up is Curse of the Blair Witch (44:01), a faux documentary about the Blair Witch and missing students. This is a nice companion piece to the film, as it details the fictional legend and town's response to the controversy.
Also included are Discovered Footage (Theories of the Blair Witch) (5:12), a deleted scene in which the characters talk about what they look forward to when they get out of the woods, and The Blair Witch Legacy (3:39), a series of text write-ups of important Blair Witch events. Three trailers recall the film's creepy marketing campaign.
The Blu-ray also features some great menus and bonus Lionsgate trailers, and viewers have the option to bookmark their favorite scenes.
Flanked by endless hype and polarized audiences upon its theatrical release, The Blair Witch Project may scare you more now than it did eleven years ago. It remains an engaging, effective thriller that preys on our everyday fears of being helpless and alone, and may actually get better with age. The Lionsgate Blu-ray is solid, cheap and comes Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.