For the three people out there who still haven't figured it out, the answer is "no, it didn't really happen."
This hardly requires an introduction. Everyone's heard of this film. More than any other movie I've ever seen, heard of, or had delusions of, this one seems to be a real "love it or hate it" sitch. Except for me. I'm sort of ambivalent about it. I'm not ambivalant about the fifty fucktillion identical spoofs of the film that popped up like mutant crabgrass in the following months. The people who made those idea-free wankfests need to take a running leap into something that hurts when they hit it; I don't care what they pick, as long as it is a thing of great pain bequeathtitude. Note to earth: when absolutely everyone else thinks of the same joke, it's not possessed of a great likelihood of being a good one. When goats can make up jokes of such caliber, get thee hence to a better idea. All such unenhumoring craptrap shows to go you is that Blair Witch's creators were, if nothing else, still more imaginative than the average goat.
So anyway. After a pretty savvy internet-based promo campaign, Blair Witch hit theaters and allowed people to run off at the mouth about "cinema verite" and such erudite thingamabobs, and made pretty much a shitload of dough. So was it some brilliant reinvention of the horror genre, or a clever con game that sucked the dough out of the pockets of millions of average Joes who ended up seeing someone's home movies on the silver screen? Well, a little bit of both.
If you believed the pundits, then it was a landmark experiment that disemboweled the horror film and spawned a hideous new form of evil within, or some other pretentious-sounding metaphor for being generally pioneering. Of course, if you listened to the other pundits, then Blair Witch was a ripoff, an idea which had been done before, which therefore made the film crap by virtue of not being totally new and original. That hyperbole aside, the basic statement was correct: the premise had been done before. Hell, it had been done just one year before in the form of the truly, mind-bogglingly fake Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, which had been broadcast on UPN-twice, no less-to an audience of credulous hook, line, sinker, and entire fisherman swallowers. But let's be honest here: most films, or books, or anythings elses, aren't totally original. Films about slow-talking tough guys who outrun billowing clouds of flame are far more formulaic, but don't tend to get smacked with the "this has been done before" argument nearly so liberally. So it's only fair to admit that The Blair Witch Project was at least more original than most Hollywood fare, which should count for something. And personally, I'm all for making a squiptillion bucks for something shot with a home camcorder. It takes the power away from the big-time moneymen and puts in the hands of the everyday dude, provided he gets extrordinarily lucky. So the question becomes, "Is it any good?"
Well, since it's essentially a horror film, the scariness factor comes into play pretty much off the get-go. Is it scary? Watch it, and if you get scared, then the answer is "yes." Phobias and fear in general aren't doled out to everyone in precisely equal quantities, so it's a basically useless point of debate. The first time I watched it, I did find it suspenseful, if not flat-out frightening. Being frightened by something you know is fake is less likely to happen the older you get, but the film plays almost entirely on your imagination, allowing you to create your own impression of what's happening, which ends up being both a strength and a weakness. More on that later.
The faux documentary can be quite the entertaining endeavor. From This is Spinal Tap or Peter Jackson's deadpan-serious Forgotten Silver to Mark Danielewski's preposterously more densely-layered and complicated "novel verite" House of Leaves, there's just something about a simple pretense of authenticity that gives a whole extra dimension to a film (the Coens brothers' hit movie Fargo took the angle of being a dramatization of real events, when in point of fact they simply made the whole thing up.) Much has indeed been made of the awkward, hilter-kilter handheld camerawork dominating the film. Somewhat less has been made of the fact that it's still quite a bit better than one could reasonably expect from students, as opposed to hardcore photojournalist veterans, in such situations-for example, the mere fact of the camera actually being on at all for half the time they're being stalked. Most people wouldn't film themselves washing blood off of their hands after accidentally getting an unexpected package of their missing pal's guts as a morning surprise. The likelihood of the last batch of scenes ever even being filmed is pretty slim; professionalism tends to bleed away when you're A. not a professional, and B. most likely about to die.
It's a common failing of horror films that when it comes time to show us the horror itself, it ends up being not nearly so horrible as we were worried it might be. Blair Witch keeps the things that go bump in the night out of sight, bumping around off-camera out in the darkness. It in fact never shows us anything akin to a witch, or other concrete manifestation of the spooky, right through to the end; something of a "be-careful-what-you-wish-for" kind of deal, I suppose. I ended up wanting to see some monster or other manner of beastie after all. The finale really doesn't work for me, honestly. I didn't get the point at all, and mentioned this to someone, who pointed out a bit from earlier in the film that was supposed to set up the ending, a bit which I'd totally forgotten about. I rewatched it, and then did in fact "get" the ending, but still failed to particularly care for it. It's too little, and the filmmakers ultimately rely too much on the viewer's imagination and not enough on their own. This is the real fault of The Blair Witch Project: it doesn't really work at all the second time. Once you know you aren't going to see the face of the horror this time, or the next time, or in fact at any point in the film, the tension stops dead in its tracks, totally evaporated by our foreknowledge.
I don't at all regret seeing the film, but I've no real desire to watch it again in the future. It's got more going for it than most of its genre, but this just points up a pretty basic fact: decent scary films are just not that easy to make. We as a culture have just gotten too wise to the tropes, which is why something like this is a good idea. I'd just have preferred a better evocation of the same premise.
-review by Matt Murray