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The Blair Witch Project (Blu-Ray)

Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Cast: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard

(US DVD: 5 Oct 2010)

Why does the The Blair Witch Project need a Blu-Ray transfer? It probably doesn’t, and that’s just one of the problems with this new release.


In 1999, one of the first successful viral campaigns made the story of three aspiring filmmakers in the Maryland woods into a horror sensation. A website alleged that the film was “found footage”, recovered from the Maryland woods and recorded the tale of the three 20-somethings becoming progressively more lost and apparently hunted by a malicious supernatural force.They begin seeing strange piles of stone, hear shrieks in the night, and find totemic symbols hanging from trees. One of the three goes missing and they find him, sort of, in an abandoned house.


The Sci-Fi Channel played a role in building speculation and excitement about the film, airing a faux documentary entitled Curse of the Blair Witch. Even after 11 years, The Blair Witch Project is featured on the urban legend debunking site Snopes.com. One of the top ten most popular Google searches related to The Blair Witch Project is worded “Blair Witch Project true story.” It was a viral campaign that worked, turning a film about an urban legend into an urban legend.


Lets be frank: this is not a scary movie. The highly successful viral campaign certainly left audiences expecting to be scared to death but, if you can recall how it was received in 1999, there was a lot of excitement followed by an immediate letdown and backlash. It was not the “scariest movie ever made”, not even close. In fact, in all the hoopla over the viral phenomenon hid the fact that films like The Exorcist had created audiences that screamed, vomited and ran out of theaters.


Though flawed, there’s certainly some craftsmanship at work here. If it’s not a truly frightening film, it’s at least a deeply unsettling one. All of that walking in the woods begins with a lot of uncomfortable and awkward disagreements between people who don’t know each other very well. Soon, the realization that they are lost leads to escalating dissension, panic and anger that becomes far more frightening than any of the sticks hanging in trees or shrieking carried on the wind. Reading the film’s denouement as the complete psychological disintegration of the group gives it something close to a chilling ending.


Speaking of the famous ending, I just don’t really get it. There’s yelling and there’s something creepy in the corner and lots of running around. I guess the Blair Witch got them? Or something?  And I’m still not scared like I want to be. Over the years, I have heard perhaps five different explanations for what happened, ranging from the aforementioned group psychosis to demonic possession. I’m not opposed to audiences bringing their own endings to open-ended films but for the horror fan, a bit more payoff was needed for my patience with the slow, subtle creation of tension. Something like… horror.


The filmmakers themselves weren’t sure how to conclude this one. The special features contains four alternate endings (and forces you to watch the same minute and a half over and over again to get to them) and only one of them, in which the final shot has the lost member of the party hanging in the cellar, gives a vaguely effective jolt and something of a clear ending.


However, one of the most discouraging elements of the special features is that we learn from the producer/director’s commentary about a number of scenes that never made it into the film that seem intriguing and yet they never make it into the deleted scenes, either. The one deleted scene that does appear is a lot of talking in the tent that adds exactly nothing to the story and that was rightly cut from the final version.


The producer/director commentary is the most worthwhile part of the special features. Myrick and Sanchez give a wealth of detail about shooting in the woods and suggest that the unease the film conveys comes from a series of harrowing experiences in rural Maryland. Best of all, we learn about the local characters employed in the film, including the odd and peculiar ones who, it turns out, were actual odd and peculiar locals.


Finally, there is the issue of the transfer itself. There’s no question that this is the best looking version of The Blair Witch Project available but, in the case of this film, this means you’re seeing jumpy camera angles, smudged looking footage and all the original blips, cracks and in high definition. The audio is improved, though this eliminates the intentionally muffled dialogue. Overall, having this in Blu-Ray is simply not an improvement over the DVD release. Especially for a film that was truly meant for the group theater experience anyway.


Sadly, this feels very dated and simply doesn’t stand the test of time. In some ways TheBlair Witch Project is seminal for the creation of better and more truly frightening films like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. It has an interesting historical appeal, anyway; it serves as a window into the moment pop culture went viral.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host out in September 2014 from Counterpoint/Soft Skull. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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