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I don’t see all that many first-release movies, but with the tidal wave of horror and science fiction films heading my way this summer, I felt it was my professional duty to get off the couch and into the cinema. Here are a few thoughts on what I’ve seen….
The Haunting | Deep Blue Sea | The Sixth Sense | Lake Placid | The Blair Witch Project | End of Days | Night of the Demon | Stigmata | Night of the Living Dead | Mission to Mars | Bats
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The Blair Witch Project: Cinematically speaking, living in Australia can be a pain in the butt. While some films are released here within weeks of their world premieres, others have their release held up for many months. This happened with Blair Witch, which did not open here until December of last year. On one hand, this was extremely annoying. On the other, it made possible a fascinating sociological experience: following the film from its first festival rumblings, through the huge arc of its critical and financial success, until finally – inevitably - the backlash set in. In a year that saw the release of The Phantom Menace, it seems odd that people have chosen to single out Blair Witch for criticism with regard to the degree of hype attached to it. My own observation, based on personal experience, is that most of that hype, being internet-based, was completely avoidable. Those who exposed themselves to it, did so voluntarily. If at some point the film stopped being merely a "film" and became a "phenomenon" instead, it was nevertheless intensely satisfying to watch this low-budget piece of nerve and imagination blow such bloated, hollow money-wasters as Wild, Wild West and The Haunting clean out of the water. And at any rate, whatever the perceived sins of those involved with Blair Witch, at least no-one can accuse them of including in their film a character whose sole raison d’Ítre was to be turned into a plastic toy and marketed through fast food chains…. But in the end, none of this really matters. The only important issue is, is The Blair Witch Project a good film? My answer is yes, absolutely, though in truth I found it more clever than scary. Throughout, I was a little too aware that this was "a really good idea for a film", rather than fully engaged by it. Nevertheless, it does have some undeniable virtues. One of the main ones is its cast. Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams deserve medals for their work here (in fact, if I have a specific gripe about the film, it’s co-directors Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s self-congratulatory tone when discussing it: if ever a film belonged entirely to its cast, this is it. And just what the heck was that "cinematography" credit all about?). The three of them – or rather, their characters - are beautifully established for us in the opening footage: the slightly officious Heather, full of self-importance over "her project" (leading ultimately to a truly unforgettable scene); the casual Josh, along for the ride; and newcomer Mike, not quite comfortable with his "outsider" status. The three are never less than credible, and this fact goes a long way towards making the film a success. Another major factor is the way that the interviews with the locals are used. For me, the pivotal scene in the movie is when a local woman is asked whether she believes in the Blair Witch, and after a pause responds that she "believes enough not to go up there". (This scene is capped by an extraordinary moment when the woman’s child becomes distressed and puts its hand over its mother’s mouth. I’m still trying to decide whether that was directorial brilliance or pure serendipity!) It is here that Blair Witch demonstrates its real strength: its understanding of the processes of fear; that it doesn’t require hard evidence to take hold; that it may be as illogical as it is powerful. One of the things I found most enjoyable about the film (if that’s the right word) is how ruthlessly it pushes all the primal buttons. Unexplained noises, the feeling that someone has been nearby in the night, the discovery of the trees full of totems (an exquisitely shot sequence) all contribute to a real sense of creeping horror. And then there’s the big one: the bundle of twigs with something inside…. (The film-makers really do play fair with this one, giving the audience a good, long look at the bundle’s gruesome contents, yet still leaving it unsure as to what it’s actually seen.) Nevertheless, where the film really works for me is the daytime scenes that chronicle the psychological disintegration of its characters in the face of the inexplicable. The ferocity and cruelty with which the three turn upon each other as the nightmare envelops them is wholly believable, and deeply disturbing. The culmination of this – Josh’s horrifying discovery that, for no apparent reason, he has been singled out by the unseen watchers – is genuinely chilling (and, ah, my female readers: isn’t it nice to see a guy being targeted for once?). Still, for all these positives, The Blair Witch Project is not entirely satisfying. Something indefinable in it – perhaps a faint sense of self-consciousness – prevents it from being quite as compelling as it should be. True horror requires that through atmosphere, implication and imagination, the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. Blair Witch never quite reaches those heights, but it is still an intelligent and worthwhile offering – and all the more so for being made in these days of over-inflated, special effects-driven, dismally unhorrifying horror films. It is worthwhile considering the various complaints that have been levelled against Blair Witch. One of the main criticisms – that you don’t see anything – I don’t consider worthy of a response. Another – the whole "camera" thing – is rather more interesting. Suspension of disbelief is a tricky thing, and even horror fans, who have no trouble at all believing in vampires, monsters, demons, or the Blair Witch herself, found the perpetual finger on the button a bit hard to swallow. Clearly, the film-makers themselves felt that they were on slightly thin ice with this one, providing two separate psychological motivations for it (the accusation that Heather is using the camera to distance herself from reality, Heather’s tearful response that filming is "all she has left"); but to be honest, I don’t feel it was necessary. You only have to consider the number of journalists and war correspondents who’ve lost their lives through staying for one last shot, rather than running away, to know that Heather’s behaviour isn’t all that far-fetched. The final criticism – the big one – is that The Blair Witch Project doesn’t live up to its hype. Well, of course it doesn’t. How could it? One of my dreams is that, one day, PR people will realise that in promoting a film out of all proportion, they do it more harm than good. Yeah, I know: just a dream…. It remains to be seen whether Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez will manage to repeat their success, or whether Blair Witch will turn out to be a pure fluke, but in any case, one thing is certain: that Heather Donahue’s right eyeball will go on to become the most referenced/ripped-off/parodied body part in screen history….