Movie Review By Monica Sullivan
Like Orson Welles' radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" in the fall of 1938. "The Blair Witch Project" crept up on us in the summer of 1999. In 1938, jittery Americans were expecting to hear a declaration of war and they did hear it within ten months of Welles' Hallowe'en prank. Between April 20 and July 16, 1999, jittery Americans felt like they had been hearing reports of inexplicable violence by young gunmen every single week. "The Blair Witch Project," which explained nothing, really, tapped into that tense mood. Since it began its run in art houses where audiences were used to seeing documentaries, its clever promotional posters suggested that we might be seeing something along the lines of "Unsolved Mysteries" on the big screen. And then Movie Magazine's Blue Velvet caught a press preview in San Jose. I started to ask her questions as if it WERE a documentary. "Monica," she laughed. "It's FICTION." The same movie I couldn't wait to see if it really WERE a true story was: just-another-summer-movie. Well, it was & it wasn't.
Since I live on the same dead end street as a Landmark theatre, I was stunned to see lines on my block for "The Blair Witch Project's" opening weekend that seemed longer than those for "The Phantom Menace," "The Spy Who Shagged Me" and "Eyes Wide Shut" put together! And the lines STAYED long, so long that I couldn't even see the movie on my own block, I had to go to a mall in another town at 12:30 a.m. when it finally went into wide release two weeks later. The mall screenings were so full that a friend and I had to sit in different theatres! At HIS screening, no one took the movie seriously and the audience laughed all the way through it. At my screening, everyone was spooked, except for a jerk on a cellular telephone who whispered the entire plot to someone who couldn't get into the theatre. As for me, stuck in the-emperor-is-wearing-no-clothes mode, it was impossible to watch "The Blair Witch Project" as a movie.
How could a 1999 audience, conditioned to kvetch about every continuity error and technical glitch in flicks that were made for megabucks possibly sit through and be scared by THIS indie? They couldn't ALL think it was real, could they? They could and they did. Girls staggered out of the screening, crying, "I'm never going into the woods! I don't even want to go near a TREE!" Guys who publicly scoffed at the movie confessed that they had nightmares later. But I got my real life chills in Catholic school, so for me, "The Exorcist" was a comedy and "The Blair Witch Project" was like something you watch in a film class where impoverished student filmmakers rationalize that the reason their films have so much black leader is because they want to break the hypnotic grip that images have on viewers. (Oh, come OFF it, can't they just admit the rent was overdue?!) The acting here by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams is very good and the careers of directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez are assured. They are all still alive. Real witches are nice people. Art house owners easily paid their rent in the summer of 1999. Indie filmmakers, don't slash your wrists because "The Blair Witch Project" made the covers of both TIME and NEWSWEEK by August 16, 1999. See 1987's unheralded "Return To Horror High" which has pretty much the same premise and you may feel a little better. And fer chrissakes, invest in a tripod!
© 1999 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 9/1/99
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