Rated R - Running Time: 1:22 - Released 7/16/99

The effectiveness of The Blair Witch Project depends greatly on the audience's uncertainty about whether or not it really happened. The amateur style and the pervasive reality of the situation imply that this was simply a homemade documentary that went terribly wrong. This notion is also fostered by an ingenious device employed by writer/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. Some of the film's shoestring budget (I have heard anywhere from $20 to 60 thousand) was used for development of the Internet website (, which includes a detailed history of the bogus legend dating back to the 1700s, pictures of "found" video and audio tape and film (with links to let you see and hear the footage), as well as police photos of the car and other gear supposedly discovered in 1995. There are news stories about the rescue efforts and recovery, lawsuits, statements from the students' parents, etc. All this, plus a quasi-documentary about the legend which aired on Sci-Fi last weekend, created the rumor that this story was all true. Myrick and Sánchez saw the incredible potential of the Internet as a rumor mill and used it to the best effect.

Three college students, Heather Donahue (the director), Joshua Leonard (the cameraman), and Michael Williams (the sound engineer), are said to have been lost in 1994 while attempting to make a college film project involving the legend of a witch who lived centuries ago in remote Maryland. At the beginning of the film, they are seen preparing for a camping weekend, packing, joking, interviewing locals from Burkittsville, Md. (formerly Blair), and setting off into the woods with a video camcorder, a 16 millimeter movie camera, and a digital audio tape recorder. After their planned documentary seems a bust, they lose their map, lose their way, and lose their patience with each other. What emerges is a shockingly realistic home movie of increasing terror leading to the students' mysterious demise.

In a master stroke, Myrick and Sánchez hired three actors to basically play themselves. In fact, in the film they are not so much acting as living — using their real names, and simply capturing on film and videotape the unsettling situation in which they found themselves. Sacrificing production quality for realism, Myrick and Sánchez cut the three actors loose in the forest (in Seneca Creek State Park, Md.) for 6 days and never contacted them directly during that time. Each day, the campers would be instructed to hike to a spot where sealed messages were left for them, giving minimal hints as to what to expect or which way to go that day. Every night the crew would find different ways to "play with their heads," but they never knew what to expect, and what we get is pure realism — their raw, unrehearsed reactions to the eerie sights and sounds they experienced.

Cutting back and forth between the video and 16mm film shot by the actors, The Blair Witch Project conveys exactly what the rumors say it is — the rough footage taken by three lost students who finally disappeared. Myrick and Sánchez created something that will be remembered not so much for its story or professional quality, but for its novel approach and the impact that resulted. Though there is no music, no script, and no special effects, this is the most gripping horror film I have ever seen.

In addition to the genius of Myrick and Sánchez, the film's effectiveness owes great debt to the performances of the actors, especially Heather Donahue. The tone, which grows gradually from light-hearted cynicism to full-blown terror, is dependent completely on the ability of these three actors not to break character while the cameras were running. Donahue's tearful final scene, shot after a week in the woods, is some of the most real acting I have ever seen.

The Blair Witch Project, with its minimal budget and incredibly clever marketing strategy, creates true horror by sticking to the adage "less is more." While The Haunting tries to scare us by showing huge monsters and digital effects, The Blair Witch Project really does scare us by not showing anything. *****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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