In 1994, local Montgomery College film students Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams came to Burkittsville, MD, to make the definitive documentary on the legend of the Blair Witch. They set out into the forest with several cans of film, primitive camping equipment, and very little patience for each other. They were never seen again. A year later, some anthropology students found a duffel bag filled with the lost students' equipment buried under the foundation of a century-old cabin in the woods.
The Blair Witch Project is a scare-fest from the old school. There are none of the nausea-inducing ingredients of the slasher genre (except perhaps for the handheld camera work, which left many viewers motion-sick); everything is suggested. Also at play here is the immortal fear of the dark and the unknown. Other than being irretrievably lost, nothing eventful happens to Heather, Josh, and Mike...in the daytime.
It is the night that brings out the terrors. The three hear strange noises--like the far-off laughter of a child--and wake up to strange stick figures and rock piles having been placed just outside their tent while they were asleep.
The tension increases steadily, with the three constantly blaming each other for being lost, until one morning... Josh is gone. While looking for him, they come upon an old house in the woods. In their search, Heather and Mike are separated, which leads up to the eeriest ending on film.
The story of the witch is barely explained, and she never appears at all (detailed backstory is available at the website). We are given just enough information to follow the film's story and be absolutely freaked out at the right moments. The natural acting of the leads is what really carries us. These people look and act terrified in a way that feels real. As annoying as they may be, sometimes, I feared for them.
As a horror film, The Blair Witch Project reaches heights of terror that can only be achieved on a low-budget, where the imagination has to be used because the filmmakers can't afford to show anything. This film taps into childhood fears--like a campfire storiy--fears we may think we've outgrown, but that merely were no longer being tested.
Its sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, first of all, plays its cards right by not even attempting to repeat the success of the original. A repeat of the original--while expected--could not have come close. Therefore, on its release, it met with ferociously mixed reviews simply because it was not what was expected--a soulless retread of the beloved original. What we got instead was a multi-layered film that comments on society in the guise of a horror film.
Five people, all fans or students of the phenomenon that is The Blair Witch Project, meet on a Blair Witch Tour of Burkittsville. These are Jeff, the tour guide, who we find out has just been released from an institution; Kim, the goth chick cynic; Erica, the sweet-natured Wiccan out to clear the witch's name; and Stephen and Tristen, a couple who are writing a book on the subject.
The entirety of Book of Shadows' plot lies in its commentary on the phenomenon that accompanied The Blair Witch Project's initial release. These characters are all obsessed with the mythology of the film. Though they know it is fiction, they react to it as reality, one of them even going so far as to set up a Blair Witch Tour of the locations used in the film--specifically the remains of Rustin Parr's cabin in the woods, where the important action of the film takes place. Signing up for this tour is how they all meet.
As part of the tour, Jeff takes them--complete with film equipment--out to the cabin--or what's left of it--where they meet up with another tour group. There is some argument as to who is going to sleep at the cabin, but "our" group wins and proceed to have one of the biggest drug and drink benders five total strangers can have with each other. Come morning, they wake up to find they don't remember much of what happened and the equipment is missing. They first suspect the other tourists, but when Kim finds it hidden under a pile of rocks, they decide the only way to find out the truth is to go to Jeff's place (an abandoned broom factory) and watch the video.
The rest of the film consists of their watching and rewatching the video, and finding out things they didn't want to know. During the viewing, snippets of footage (or is it memory?) find their way onto the video, and since we see the events from the characters' points of view, it is left up to us to decide whether what we are seeing is real or the product of a shared delusion.
As with the first film, the characters have the same first names as the actors but, in this one, they have different last names, giving the film a sense of not-quite reality. Also contributing to this surreal experience are several "ghost images' that appear throughout the film, but are deliberately not brought to our attention. (The DVD, however, offers obscure hints to their meaning.)
Book of Shadows is not a scare-fest, but it is a creep-fest. The atmosphere from the beginning is one of uncertainty, one that takes us on a journey that we're sure is not going to turn out right. But its subtleties--especially those ghost images!--are almost overwhelming. Visually, there's too much going on for us to be able to concentrate on the storyline and its resolution. But that simply makes for a feeling of unease, which fits here perfectly.