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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Blair Witch Project

October 1st, 2010

The Blair Witch Project - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

Last year a film by the name of Paranormal Activity came out costing just $15,000 to make but grossing nearly $200 million at the box office. In terms of percentages, it is considered by many to be the most profitable movie of all time. The film that it overtook was The Blair Witch Project, which had come out ten years previously. The two films have a lot more in common, including the supernatural element to the plot and the found footage motif used in filming. I got a chance to review Paranormal Activity and thought it was an effective horror film, but will its "spiritual predecessor" top it?

The Movie

At the beginning of the movie we are introduced to three film students: Heather, Michael, and Joshua. They are making a documentary on The Blair Witch, a woman who was accused of witchcraft in the 18th century and killed. They head to the village of Burkittsville, Maryland, which was previously known as Blair. Once there, Heather gives her overly dramatic, film school introduction to the town, hinting at some of the horrors that have befallen it. They also interview a number of the locals who give them stories about the Blair Witch being used as a bogeyman to scare kids. The most disturbing story is about a hermit who killed seven kids because the Blair Witch told him to. They also talk to Mary Brown, who had her own encounter with The Blair Witch.

The next day they head out into the woods for a multi-day camping expedition to film important locations in the Blair Witch mythology, like Coffin Rock, where several men were ritualistically murdered. There are a number of encounters, including running into two men fishing on the river, one of whom warns them that the woods are haunted and they are in danger if the go in. They also momentarily get lost, but Heather, who's in charge of these things, doesn't tell anyone till the next day when she finds her bearings again.

That night, they do hear a faint noise outside of their tent. The next day they get lost, again, and their nerves start to go. Finding the strange cemetery helps, sort of. It's a good find for their documentary, but it is creepy as hell with the seven rock piles. (Although I found the rocks tied up in the trees more creepy than the piles on the ground.) Then when one of them accidentally knocks over a pile, things get real.

I'm about 25 minutes into the movie at this point, but I'm unwilling to go any further, as it becomes increasingly impossible to avoid spoilers.

The Found Footage genre arguably got its start in 1980 with Cannibal Holocaust, an Italian movie, but it was The Blair Witch Project that really got the genre mainstream attention. And since 2007 / 2008 with the release of [REC] and Cloverfield, there have been many wide releases to use the same format. There are certain aspects of The Blair Witch Project that were initially very effective, but have since become common enough that looking back they are almost cliché. The shaky camera makes it hard to follow the action, and since the unknown is almost always scarier than the known, this makes the movie scarier. At least it does the first few times you see it in a movie.

Also, the scares here are generated more by the anticipation of things to come rather than what is happening on screen at any one time. This means the horror is less effective for audience members that are more interested in the big payoff. Those looking for a big payoff, on the other hand, shouldn't look to a movie that cost $25,000 to make. You can't buy many special effects with that amount of money. Those willing to get wrapped up in the movie will be rewarded.

One final note, there's quite a bit of humor here as well, mostly during the early nights when the subject turns to non-witch related topics, like Gilligan's Island. I firmly believe that humor is like MSG for movies. A little bit helps every other genre be more effective. In this case, a little bit of humor helps make the scary scenes scarier, because it humanizes the characters.

The Extras

Extras are ported over from the DVD release and include an audio commentary track with Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, the two co-directors. It's an entertaining track that gives a lot of information, but as they warn early on, it's not dry and technical minded. There are four Alternate Endings, which are incredibly annoying to watch. Each are about 2 minutes long, but there are only about 10 seconds that are different, so it is was too repetitive watching all four in a row. There is also a deleted scene where the trio talk about theories based on the evidence so far. Curse of the Blair Witch is an mocku-making of featurette. That is to say, it would have been the making of featurette if the documentary the three characters were making actually got made and released on DVD. It's very long at 44 minutes and worth checking out. Finally, there's a timeline for the Blair Witch from the origins in the late 1700s to how the footage was finally released. Overall not a bad set of extras.

On the other hand, the film does not shine on Blu-ray. Since the film is supposedly shot by three film students, it should come as no surprise that it looks ugly in high definition, while the sound is very limited. (It's a 2.0 mix.) It does only cost $15, which is an acceptable price for this type of release.

The Verdict

The spat of Found Footage films that have come out in the past few years have hurt The Blair Witch Project's effectiveness as a horror film, but that said, it is still worth checking out. The extras on the Blu-ray are not new, but they are numerous enough that the overall package is worth picking up over just renting.

And look at that... I managed to get through the entire review without quoteing The Blair Thumb.

"Maybe he's okay."
"He's been torn in half. Okay is at the top of the list of things he's not!"

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