The Blair Witch Project

I almost feel sorry for The Blair Witch Project. As the most buzzed-about independent film in history, there's no way it could have lived up to its hype. Perhaps if it remained a small, little-seen film, relying solely on word of mouth rather than mountains of publicity, then it could have been judged based on its own merits. But with the deafening "must see" brouhaha that's surrounded it ever since it debuted at Sundance this year, it was impossible for anybody to go into this film sans expectations.

Full disclosure: because I actively avoid horror flicks that rely on jump scares, I had first asked a coworker who had already seen Blair Witch if there were any in the film. He assured me that there were not, and so I went into the film feeling relaxed. As a result, I failed to find it even remotely suspenseful. Keep that in mind as you read this review.

As a phony documentary made by three young filmmakers (played by annoying newcomers Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams) who "disappeared" in the Maryland woods while looking into the local legend known as the Blair Witch, the film presents itself as "found footage" of the trio's doomed exploration in the forest. As the footage unspools chronologically, we are treated to long daytime stretches, shot on rough video, in which the actors mostly improvise and pretend to slowly go insane as they desperately try to find their way back to their car. Is the Blair Witch warping their minds with unseen sorcery? Shrug. In between those stretches, we are then treated to nighttime footage, filled with lots of scenes of the actors peering into the darkness after hearing a spooky noise and shouting out, "Hello?"

Perhaps I would have found these latter scenes terrifying if I had thought that a real Blair Witch might jump out at any moment. Alas, though, the scenes consistently come up empty. The characters only discover the occasional talisman made of wood or string or bones or whatever, and that's supposed to be incredibly unnerving.

Obviously this film is a subjective experience: the woman sitting two seats away from me in the theater was absolutely riveted, hiding her eyes and clearly scared out of her wits. It literally felt like we were watching two different movies. But The Blair Witch Project reminds me of those carnival/sideshow scams, where a barker stands outside an exotic-looking tent and promises the most shocking things you'll ever see. But what you get inside the tent, after you pay your money, is a goof at best, an insult at worst.