DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of The Blair Witch Project, II: Book of Shadows, Hallow, An American Haunting, American Movie, Coven, Ed Wood

 

Title: The Blair Witch Project

Release Date:  1999

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about  83 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company: Artisan Entertainments

Director; Writer: Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Myrick

Producer: Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Myrick

Cast:   Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard

Technical:  Black-and White, 4:3 aspect

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Review: Movie Review: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Artisan Entertainment; Rating: R; Produced and Directed by Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Myrick

Starring Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard; 83 Minutes; 8.5/10

Also, Blair Witch II:  Book of Shadows

            This is supposed to be the penultimate "fact or fiction" docudrama, an exercise in "method acting," produced for only about $60000. I've already reviewed a limited release "DVD film" The Last Broadcast. But Artisan has given this kind of super-low-budget horror flick the distribution that can make big $$ and become a cult classic, if not quite a Rocky Horror Picture Show.

            My reaction to this is quite mixed, even though the film is going to turn out to be important. I have to review this spoof a bit analytically.

            The premise is simple. A bunch of young adults go into the woods to make a documentary about a rumored "Blair Witch" and disappear. Their footage is found, and becomes the movie.

            And the setup is really too simple. The characters are redneck-ish (even the women) and one-dimensional. It was hard for me to care about them, compared to the protagonists in Wavelength's The Last Broadcast. In that film, docudrama was interleaved with interviews and perspectives to enrich the subject matter. Here, the account is literal and it gets bogged down for me. It really wasn't all that scary.

             The grainy physical presentation really is pretty effective. The shots are in 16-mm format, so that the screen size is reduced to a 4:3 aspect ratio (which used to be standard in the days of Citizen Kane; Francis Ford Coppola uses Technovision for the same effect). The stereo, if present, is minimal. This was like going to the movies in the 1950's, which my parents first let me go on my own. (Funny, this film was "R" but there were a lot of unaccompanied 12 year olds in the audience; but there's nothing in the movie that couldn't fall within PG-13 as far as I could tell). Without the use of matte paintings and special effects of larger studios, the producers really did shoot everything on location, and the settings in the Maryland woods look real (I grew up in nearby northern Virginia). The time of year is late October, when the trees have some color but are starting to get brownish and bald. The photography slides between black-and-white (Touch of Evil style) and muted color, so that the falling leaves look a brownish orange, sometimes almost pink. The effect sometimes suggest colorization, but I think it's mostly a muting or pastel-ization of the natural colors. As model railroaders say, there are no true colors in nature, no six-band rainbow.

            Blair is supposed to be Burkittsville, Md., and I could not find such a town in my atlas; nor could I find a Blair County. (There is a Burtonsville, between Washington and Baltimore). So I presume the story happens in the Maryland Piedmont, perhaps are Buckeystown, a rolling and wooded area where Washington's gay outdoors club, Adventuring, does so many of its spring bike-rides. But really, could six people really get lost in the woods for a week in this area (maybe they could in Garrett County, around Mount Savage). It wouldn't happen on an Adventuring or Outwoods camping trip! (Later development: ABC News and Time both report that there is an unincorporated town of Burkittsville, Md. with a population of 214, apparently not too far from Brunswick (a commuter rail stop on the Potomac) at the foot of South Mountain [in the Catoctins]. "Genuine" Hollywood studios have often been reluctant to clearly identify small towns as real places in fiction films, for intellectual property law reasons.)

            So really this turns out to be a story how, in ordinary settings, ordinary people (again, the name of a poignant 1980 movie!!) get lost and fall into despair and doom, so close to "civilization." John Sayle's Limbo presents a similar problem near Juneau, Alaska, where the premise that our world is like a Clive Barker Fifth Dominion holds more weight. There's one great quote in the script: "you can't get lost in America!" Well, you can. But 40 miles from Washington, DC??

            The "explanation," to the extent that the movie offers one, is ambiguous. The warning signs are conceptually original enough: Stonehenge-style cairns are found around the campsites; then crude wooden crosses, and finally a dilapidated, condemned settler's house, whose sheetrock is falling out as if the house were in radiation sickness, where the crew meets its perhaps deserved end.

            We can guess on what the "witch" really was? A Sasquatch?? An inappropriately hairy-bodied female that had lived before and had come back to cut out young men's hearts? A cult that practices human sacrifice? But then why wait in the woods for decades for some dumbasses to stumbled into their cove? There is some Freudian amusement, perhaps satisfying The Weekly Standard's writer David Skinner: in one scene, one of the redneck men, a fattish sort and not one of the hardbodies of Men's Fitness, strips off his shirt and reveals a chest that is not exactly Skinner-hairless, but (the next best thing) at best is decorated with occasional scraggle. One of the girls makes fun of his rather paltry external masculinity, and he doesn’t mind. These are the kinds of guys who are supposed to beget kids and sacrifice themselves for the rest of us in the military. They're supposed to fulfill "family values" for the rest of us. Well, this guy won't make it. He earns a deserved demise.

            The sequel Blair Witch II: Book of Shadows  (2000, Artisan, directed by Joe Berlinger) is corny and I rather enjoyed the black humor. Technically, it is filmed with standard 35mm equipment in standard (1.8/1) aspect ratio, and a little edge in the realism is lost in the gloss.  I’m not sure whether the miniature Catoctin mountains south of Frederick, Md. really are called “the Black Hills” (like the well known mountains in western South Dakota, and these have their own vortex and mysteries) –they become the “Bull Run Mountains” in Virginia.

            The “story” is rather peripatetic, told in flashbacks and in a long sequence in the chief character, Jeff’s (Jeff Donovan) speakeasy hideaway in the hills, complete with moat and draw bridge. It’s rather like a dream.  Starting with “vancredible” tour guide, supposedly attracting curiosity seekers drawn to the earlier mystery  the characters wind up in Jeff’s liar, where reality looses its focus and people need to undo the crimes they may have committed and then “forgotten.”  Does Jeff really keep stolen property for fences?  Is Jeff really mentally unstable? He seems too charismatic and well-organized to have been straight-jacketed and hosed bare-legged as a god-damn m.p. in some St. Elizabeth’s style sanatorium.  Is the witch among them?  Well, in one scene another male character suddenly looses his chest hair in a sex scene. And why is virile Jeff always wearing tight, Borg-Warner-plastic-looking long johns?   

            On Halloween night 2001 I experienced a screening of Ted Dewberry’s film, Hallow, a local Minnesota effort (Longcoat films) that combines ideas from David Lynch as well as a bit of Blair Witch.  A nearly blind photographer (Bob Elliot) goes on a personal journey of self-discovery with friends and particularly his mother, to discover a world of frightening entities that take over people.  There is one camping scene where his friend (played by Kip Soberg) becomes paralyzed by the entity as of by curare. Black-and-white and color or skillfully mixed.  “Hallow” refers to sacred ground.

            Artisan also offers a 45-minute video Curse of the Blair Witch, a documentary purporting to give the rather supernatural history of the Burkistsville area since the 18th Century. Some of it is pretty gruesome.

An American Haunting (2006, LionsGate/Freestyle/AfterDark, dir. Courtney Solomon, 91 min, PG-13, Canada/Quebec) is supposed to be based on a true story in 19th Century pre-War Tennessee, at the edge of the Cumberlands, when a family was taunted by the “Bell Witch” over a property dispute, and at least one family member would die (supposedly the only documented case of an actual death caused by a ghost). Filmed in Romania, it really does look like the Cumberland area. There are a lot of snowy scenes, but in the higher country in East Tennessee, it snows as much as it does in coastal New England. The story is framed from present day, when a teacher finds a letter on the property describing the events. In the past life, Donald Sutherland (who else?) is John Bell, and James D’Arcy plays a wholesome young male schoolteacher, an anomaly for those days when teachers carried their scuttles of coal to class. This has pretty effective period piece film-making to generate stylized special effects (like the stagecoach flip), but it does not generate the curiosity of the grainy Blair Witch or Last Broadcast movies. A better comparison is Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This film is in Cinemascope and fades to black-and-white in some terror scenes, with some effect.

American Movie (1999, Sony Pictures Classics/Bluemark/Borchardt, dir. Chris Smith, 104 min) is a documentary about a super-low-budget Wisconsin filmmaker and sparse-looking Mark Borchardt making his super-8 black-and-white horror short “Coven” which came out in 1997. His two brothers Chris and Alex paint him as a dreamer artist. Mark is constantly in debt, facing calls from debt collectors. For a “living” he delivers papers (The Wall Street Journal) at 7 AM, driving his own car, so he can listen to the radio, get the news of the world, and not be bothered by a boss. (Delivery jobs are like that but they pay almost nothing.) He predicts that the Internet will destroy print media within ten years (by 2007, and that won’t quite happen, but bloggers are certainly pressuring the media to change.) The film is 4:3 full screen. He is also trying to make a feature called “Northwestern.”  The Sony DVD has a large number of miniature deleted scenes, including one in which he explains that a visual storyboard should be included with a script or screenplay when a film is submitted to coverage or to investors. (Interesting tip, because I never heard this in screenwriting classes either in Minneapolis or Arlington.) Although I rented this recently, I think I saw it at a festival (maybe Central Standard) in Minneapolis through IFP.

Coven (1997, Sony Pictures Classics/Northwestern, dir. Mark Borchardt, 35 min) is the short mentioned above. An alcoholic, after OD-ing in a hospital, joins a therapy group that turns out to be a coven of witches and challenges his will to live. Whenever he is on the outside, the phantoms chase him, almost stripping him once, and smashing his car. In 16 mm black and white, but some of the scenes were shown in color in the documentary. The character Michael says that “writing” pays his rent, and that isn’t easy.

Ed Wood (1994, Touchstone, dir. Tim Burton, book by Rudolph Grey, 127 min, R) is a biographical sketch of the famous director of B-movies, with Johnny Depp in one of his early visible roles, and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. Some of his films were “Plab 9 from Outer Space” and “Bride of the Monster”. In delicious black and white, rather unusual for the time. 

 

Related reviews: The Last Broadcast, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Night of the Living Dead   The Haunting in Connecticut

 

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