If you were Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, you'd be sending out gift baskets by now. Thanks to the popularity of the genre they jumpstarted - the faux realistic found footage mock documentary - their 1999 brainchild The Blair Witch Project now looks like the horror classic many claimed it was 11 years ago. With incredibly lame examples like The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and Quarantine mucking up the material, the simple macabre lost in the forest misadventures of a trio of misguided moviemakers now plays like the Citizen Kane of the 'audience as participant POV' experiment. It's still Shakespearean in its purpose - meaning it ends up being much ado about nothing - but the cinematic skill set at work here, plus Myrick and Sanchez's desire to keep things moving along, offer a welcome respite from all the faux surveillance stupidity out there. This doesn't really make The Blair Witch Project a horror mainstay, just a necessary and worthy milestone.
By now, the main storyline here is rote. Three wannabe filmmakers - documentarian Heather, cameraman Josh, and recording tech Mike travel into the famed area surrounding Burkittsville, Maryland, looking to learn more about the fabled Blair Witch that supposedly haunts said woods. Along the way, they record their antics, interviewing locals about a child killer named Rustin Parr and eyewitnesses to the supernatural spinster's wicked ways. Eventually losing their way in the wilderness, they come up against unusual night noises, wooden talismans, and eerie effigies. When Josh turns up missing, the others begin to panic. Then, one night, they come across a seemingly abandoned house, and once inside, come face to face with their deepest, darkest fears.
After years of trying to figure out the allure of something like The Blair Witch Project, wondering why critic friends and horror fiends alike would still support its f-bomb screaming inertness, this writer has finally found an answer. It may have seemed obvious at first, but we definitely needed the perspective of the last decade or so to make the connections clear. Unlike other examples of the found footage genre, heavily improvised and modeled after the cinema verite style of a standard documentary, The Blair Witch Project utilizes the actual fears of its cast to carry us past the massive leaps in common sense and logic. When Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez envisioned their film, they saw it as more or less a double barreled "gotcha". The first victim would be the actors, told little about what they were doing but mandated to capture every unnerving moment on video. The second would be the audience, invested in the real terror on display and, hopefully, feeling a similar experience of dread along the way.
This is what is missing from all the other found footage pretenders to the throne. In Paranormal Activity, everything is staged. Same goes for something like the Rosemary's Baby ridiculousness of The Last Exorcism. In fact, for every example of a genre where the actors are in on the ruse, we have yet another failed imitator trying desperately to cash in on a once clever cinematic gimmick. Sadly, such a strategy rarely works (only the brilliant Spanish scarefests REC and REC2 have found a way of merging standard motion picture storytelling and performance with such a ploy). Here, when Heather and Josh freak out, Heather and Josh REALLY ARE FREAKING THE F OUT! There is no sense memory going on, no Actor's Studio method manipulation of their fright. They are out in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the night, hearing the unsettling sounds of children screaming. How anyone could survive such a shoot with their sanity intact remains a mystery. Of course, the film itself loses a little of said fright in the translation. Perhaps because of jarring handheld bedlam, or the lack of a sympathetic character, what should be unnerving is often just annoying.
Still, The Blair Witch Project deserves recognition for what it is and is not. It also argues for its place as part of the now old hat viral marketing scheme that tapped into the Internet zeitgeist before few understood the meaning of those two words. In fact, the most intriguing aspect of this film's legacy is how legitimate everyone thought it was. Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News often argued that his first experience with the film was so unnerving because he thought it was actually some found footage. Today, NOBODY thinks that Cloverfield or REC are real. Instead, they recognize the gimmick and go about their entertainment business. That's where The Blair Witch Project's secret weapon again comes into play. Even though you know the storyline is somewhat staged, the horrified reactions of the cast are 100% authentic. All fakery aside, these kids were scared - and the film captures is brilliantly. Argue all you want over its bait and switch strategizing overwhelming ado about nada meaning, but in 2010, The Blair Witch Project is still engaging and effective. It's a claim few stunt style fright films can make.
Here are the first of three strikes against putting out The Blair Witch Project on Blu-ray. First off, the film was made to look cheap, off handed, and technically troubled. There is grain o'plenty, out of focus sequences, and a constant switching between oddly colored video material and fuzzy, gray monochrome. So Lionsgate decision to release the title in a format that would accent these aspects seems counterproductive. Still, the AVC encoded 1080p image does retain the movie's original purpose - that is, as found footage - and provides a level of detail heretofore unseen. The 1.33:1 full frame print is still annoying, especially for the mandatory flat screen hook-up the technology requires, but for the most part, The Blair Witch Project benefits from the high definition update - if only slightly.
Is there anything more pointless than a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix? After all, do we really need to hear random cursing and the intrusion of ambient noises in faux aural finery. While Mike was/is the man in charge of the recording device throughout most of the movie, there are definitely times when the internal microphone of the camcorder provided the only sonic source available. This means the dialogue is often flat and lifeless. While the finale offers up a decent soundscape or two (including the distant drone of Heather's heartfelt shrieks), the mundane audio situation here is another blu-ray blunder.
And here's the final nail in the format coffin. If you have a movie as simple and unobtrusive as The Blair Witch Project, wouldn't you then try to pack the new disc with as much added content as possible? A quick peek at former DVD releases shows a limited amount of material available, but that doesn't mean that some fan-produced product couldn't have been included. What we do get here is an old audio commentary (dated, thanks to some pop culture references), a decent full length documentary explaining the Blair Witch legacy, a look at four alternative endings (each one effectively creepy) and a text-based discussion of the various events surrounding the purported evil. Add in some trailers and that's all she wrote. Perhaps the most intriguing element not found here - the more than two hours of footage deleted from the original cut of the film. While it would be next to impossible to sit through three hours of endless whining and yelling, such cutting room remains are vital to the movie's legacy. They should have been found and included here.
The Blair Witch Project remains a singular work of readily recognizable skill and imagination. It is not always a total success and ends up underwhelming more than tingling one's spine. Still, in comparison to the crappy carbon copies that have come out since its success, it more than holds up. Earning an easy Recommended rating, the Blu-ray release may seem superfluous, but it does offer some technical insights missing from previous DVD offerings. It's rare when a benchmark actually benefits from being worked over by dozens of drab imitators. In the case of The Blair Witch Project, the eventual reappraisal is a revelation.