[Screen It]


(1999) (Heather Donahue, Michael Williams) (R)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Mild Moderate Moderate Extreme None
Mild Minor None None Extreme
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
Minor Mild None Mild Moderate

Horror: Planning to make a documentary about a rural legend, three young filmmakers set out into the Maryland woods and encounter far more than they expected.
In this fictitious account of a real-life story, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams hike into Maryland's Black Hills Forest in the fall of 1994 to shoot a documentary about a local legend, "The Blair Witch." From the onset we know that the three mysteriously disappeared, with only their film footage left as clues regarding what may have happened to them.

Shown entirely from the viewpoint of their black and white 16mm camera along with Heather's handheld camcorder, the film shows the three planning for their trip and then interviewing locals about the legend. Filled with stories of hairy beings, mass murders and strange and apparently supernatural phenomena, the three set off into the woods for several days of exploring, shooting and camping.

Finding various oddities in the middle of nowhere and encountering creepy events in the darkness of night, the filmmakers begin to get a bit spooked, especially when they lose their map and realize they're lost. As the days pass and they encounter more nighttime occurrences, the three lost, hungry and increasingly paranoid filmmakers must deal with their behavior toward each other as well as the seemingly supernatural events that are quickly driving them crazy.

If they're into horror films, yes, but this is much different from the typical slasher film or its recent witty send-ups, the "Scream" films.
For language.
The three characters play filmmakers who, under the stress of the situation, cuss a great deal, become irritated, irrational and paranoid and smoke and drink some.


OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
It's a case that FBI agents Mulder and Scully would likely be assigned to investigate. It seems three student filmmakers set out to document a supernatural legend, but then mysteriously disappeared with the only clues to what may have occurred to them being found on their later discovered film footage.

While that may sound like a potential episode of TV's "The X-Files," it's actually the starting point of the creepy "The Blair Witch Project." The darling of this year's Cannes Film Festival, this low- budget work from a pair of soon to be known writer/directors is generating lots of buzz and for good reason.

A highly imaginative mix of any Stephen King novel set in the woods and the MTV "reality" show, "The Real World," this film is quite remarkable, especially for such novice filmmakers. Shown entirely and only from the point of view of two cameras, the film creates an entirely realistic, "you are there" sensation that generates two important side effects. For one, the moviegoer is consequently no longer a passive viewer, but instead now an active participant in the proceedings.

Much like the feeling one must get if ever confronted with a "snuff" film (where people are supposedly killed for real with the act captured on film/video), the proceedings here are delivered in such a realistic fashion that one begins to wonder if perhaps this really happened to the "actors." After all, they are playing themselves, at least in name.

What makes the film seem so realistic is the way in which co-writers/directors Eduardo Sanchez & Dan Myrick shot the film. Utilizing a "boot camp" approach, they subjected their performers to living in the woods for the duration of the shoot, with little food, sleep or information of how the story was to unfold. By keeping them off balance, the filmmakers brilliantly extracted some believable performances from the cast.

By forcing the audience to experience the horrors right alongside the actors, the suspense and fright factors are incredibly heightened. Far more important and impressive, however, is that by limiting what we see -- and actually not see since very little is actually ever revealed -- the film uses the most powerful cinematic tool ever available to filmmakers -- the moviegoer's imagination.

Unlike modern "horror" films such as "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer" that present cheap and unimaginative chills and thrills -- and in the case of the latter, a particularly less than frightening boogeyman -- this one works more like a scary novel. It gives the viewer just enough information to let their mind race.

As such, the moviegoer imagines events far worse than most similar films deliver, and thus generates far more goose bumps than what any knife-wielding maniac and the resulting blood and gore could possibly induce. The filmmakers are clearly aware that what you can't see is certainly more frightening than what you can, and as such, play off the old childhood notion of a monster being under one's bed or in the closet, just out of sight.

At times, they do take that notion a bit too far when they have the characters turn off their camera lights but still keep the film or video rolling. While we're supposed to be even more spooked by the complete darkness, the sad truth is that today's theaters are less than completely dark and thus the effect is somewhat ruined. If theaters could be pitch black, then such audio-only moments would indeed be incredibly scary.

Thus, the film works far better when we can't see more than a few feet beyond where the camera's lights illuminate the woods and, of course, never see the titular subject or any other sources of the noises and otherwise creepy material.

This is particularly effective due to the well-thought out use of grainy, black and white 16mm film mixed with similarly low resolution color video footage. With the nighttime scenes never being crystal clear or illuminated that well, and with plenty of shaky camera footage as the filmmakers run through the woods, the overall effect is quite impressive.

All of that said, the truly scary stuff unfortunately only occupies less than half the film's nearly ninety minute runtime. While a scary film obviously needs some "down time" where the audience can recover from the frightening material, this picture's other half -- while intriguing at times, begins to wear thin after a while.

Although there are a few jokes and seemingly unintentional humor scattered throughout the production -- such as when an interviewed subject tells her young daughter that the scary story she's telling isn't true, but then mouths to the camera that it is -- most of the daylight scenes simply involve the trio getting lost and getting on each other's nerves.

While the nighttime scenes are truly frightening, the daylight ones, by contrast, are like watching an outdoor episode of MTV's "The Real World." In that program and its many incarnations, a documentary style camera crew follows and records the trials and tribulations of a group of young people assembled to live together.

As most anyone who's been to college can attest, young and non-romantically attached people are notorious for not getting along -- no matter the best initial intentions -- and eventually tiffs, squabbles and fights ensue over even the most mundane things.

The same is apparently true for assembling some filmmakers in the woods and allowing them to get both lost and scared. As such, and with things progressively worsening day by day, tensions rise and our threesome soon has it out amongst themselves. The effect is initially intriguing, occasionally funny and effectively serves the point of establishing events that will pay off in the spooky nighttime scenes.

Some moviegoers, however, will quickly tire of the increasingly occurring and repetitive arguments. This particularly pertains to the nonstop shooting of film footage throughout where Michael and Joshua continually ask or tell Heather to stop recording their every move. While the refusal to stop filming is partially explained and defended, credibility begins to get strained as the cameras are never put down.

Although it's understood that such later "discovered" footage was essential to make this film, it becomes a bit ridiculous late in the story -- and in particular during the creepy final scene -- that these students wouldn't have chucked the film gear and simply tried to get out of Dodge. Of course without it, we would never have known -- or partially known -- what happened to the three, but the filmmakers could have utilized some different means to get the same result.

For instance, Heather's Hi-8 video camera could have been of the helmet-mounted variety, thus enuring not only hands-free operation and a "you only see what she sees" point of view, but would also remedy the problem of her still filming the events by forgetting that the camera was still rolling.

More effective, however, would have been a greater use of the diary like passages that does occur once during the film. While the moment where Heather turns the camera on herself to record her terrified thoughts is quite unnerving (since we only see part of her wide-eyed, nearly petrified expression), I would have had an "after the fact" narrator read passages from her written diary.

Since the film gear was later discovered, her diary could have been as well, and reading entries from it while seeing the daytime footage would have had two effects. First, it would replace some of the repetitive, "Real World" bickering that eventually grows tiresome during such daylight scenes. Even better, however, it would have added another layer of novel-like creepiness to the film that would then even further accentuate the nighttime material (especially if it contained an ironic, but obviously incorrect optimism of how things would turn out).

Despite the film's daytime/nighttime split personality and the fact that the film's genuine frights occupy less than half of it, this is easily one of the creepiest pictures to come down the pike in years and features some of the truly scariest moments I've seen in a long time (which, quite surprisingly, are not accompanied by any traditional, scary music). The ending is one that's not only disturbing, but will also stick in your brain long after you leave the theater and will evoke goose bumps whenever you think of it.

With a little more creative work the film could have gone down in the annals of the horror genre's all-time best, but even considering its problems, this is an impressive debut for the filmmakers. And for those who prefer to let their imagination do the work and generate some genuinely frightening moments, you clearly won't go wrong with this film. We give "The Blair Witch Project" a 7 out of 10.

Here's a brief summary of the content found in this R-rated horror film. Profanity is extreme with more than 130 "f" words, 60 "s" words, and various other words and colorful phrases being used. Although we never see the titular subject, the film has many scenes that are quite suspenseful and/or downright scary in a supernatural sense.

Other scenes that may be unsettling to some viewers include the three filmmakers arguing and fighting with one another due to paranoia and fright. Some violence is implied or talked about through recollections of old stories, and we briefly see what looks like rather bloody, severed fingers (or some other body part) in a bloody cloth.

Beyond some brief smoking, drinking and a sexual comment or two, however, the film's remaining categories have little or nothing in the way of major objectionable content. Nonetheless, if you're still concerned about the film's appropriateness for yourself or anyone in your home, we suggest that you take a closer look at the listed content.

  • The three celebrate their first day of shooting by drinking beer. Joshua then drinks Scotch straight from the bottle, as does Heather who then asks if they have any "weed" (marijuana -- they don't).
  • After a man tells a story about the legend, his friend says that he was drinking that day (thus explaining what he saw).
  • The group comments that if the characters on "Gilligan's Island" had beer, "they would have had big ass orgies."
  • Among other things, Heather and Mike talk about having wine as they fantasize about what they crave/would have if they weren't lost in the woods.
  • There's some brief talk about "farting" in their camping tent.
  • We briefly see a dead mouse in the woods.
  • Heather discovers a wrapped up, bloody cloth in the woods that when opened, shows what looks like several severed and obviously bloody fingers (or other parts of a human body).
  • What looks like bloody children's hand prints are seen on the walls of an old house.
  • Some viewers may not appreciate the supernatural elements of this film, although we never see any witches or other supernatural characters (although something or someone is often heard late at night and assembles piles of stones or bundles of sticks near the filmmakers' tent).
  • The three filmmakers begin to have some and then more of both toward the others that increasingly gets worse as the tension mounts and the days pass.
  • Although some occurrences listed below don't seem particularly scary and none of them include any scary music, they're presented in a such a way that they're quite creepy and unnerving.
  • Some eyewitness accounts and rumors of events in the small town and woods -- involving kids being abducted and murdered along with a group of men -- may be unsettling or scary to some viewers.
  • Likewise the group's progressively increasing bickering and fighting may be unsettling to some viewers.
  • The three find odd piles of rocks on the ground and in trees (that's spooky just because of the way it's presented).
  • They then hear odd sounds at night off in the distance and we see their black and white footage of this (where the camera light doesn't shine very far, thus creating a nearby and menacing darkness).
  • The next night they hear the same eerie sounds off in the distance and the next morning find piles of rocks outside their tent (suggesting that someone or something was there).
  • The group finds all sorts of weirdly shaped objects made of tree branches, etc... hanging from trees and sitting on the ground.
  • Another nighttime encounter where something appears to be hitting the outside of their tent eventually has Heather running into the woods screaming and yelling things like, "Oh my God!" and "What the f*ck is that?" in a panicked voice. When they return to their camp the next day, they realize that someone or something has been at their campsite.
  • The group finds that one of their members is missing and frantically searches for them.
  • Another nighttime scene has some of the crew hearing what sounds like someone yelling in pain and then racing into the pitch black woods looking for them.
  • Heather discovers a wrapped up, bloody cloth in the woods that when opened, shows what looks like several severed and obviously bloody fingers (or other parts of a human body).
  • Another nighttime scene -- that lasts several minutes -- has more voices being heard and then a spooky trip inside a dilapidated house trying to find the source of the voices (and hearing plenty of Heather screaming).
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Shut the f*ck up," "Full of sh*t," "Holy sh*t," "Kick some ass," "Fart," "Taking a piss," "Smart ass," "Big ass" and "Screwed" (nonsexual).
  • Some kids may want to grab the camcorder and head off into the woods to make their own "spooky" film.
  • As seen through the camera's point of view, something/someone suddenly hits two characters and their cameras quickly fall to the ground (happening inside an already spooky scene).
  • None.
  • None.
  • At least 134 "f" words, 62 "s" words, 11 asses (3 used with "hole"), 5 hells, 3 damns, and 6 uses of "G-damn," 5 of "Jesus Christ," 4 of "Oh my God," 3 of "Jesus," 2 of "Oh Jesus" and 1 use each of "Swear to God" and "Oh God" as exclamations.
  • The group comments that if the characters on "Gilligan's Island" had beer, "they would have had big ass orgies."
  • One of the guys comments that he craves some mashed potatoes and (what sounded like) "a piece of ass."
  • Heather and Mike smoke a few times, while Josh also smokes, but not as often.
  • In one scene, Josh asks for a cigarette but is informed that they're out of them. Later, however, Mike announces that he found some at the bottom of his bag.
  • None.
  • That the film, despite the presentation, is fictitious.
  • Whether a "Blair Witch" legend really exists and what was really occurring around the characters and what happened to them at the end.
  • Through witness accounts and rumors, we hear that seven kids and others were murdered in the past in the small town, with the latter being gutted and something written into their flesh (we see none of this).
  • We see Josh and Mike briefly struggling with each other.
  • We see one of the guys briefly attack Heather as she videotapes them (seen from her point of view and thus see our view jostled around).
  • Heather discovers a wrapped up, bloody cloth in the woods that when opened, shows what looks like several severed and obviously bloody fingers (or other parts of a human body).
  • Something happens to the three filmmakers (presumably fatal), but we never really know what (other than hearing thumps and then seeing their cameras fall to the ground).

  • Reviewed June 15, 1999 / Posted July 16, 1999

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