Blair Witch on DVD
For the past several years, the American horror film has been suffering through a wintery decline, infected with a loss of faith in its own unique possibilities. Horror's magnificent potential to disturb, to stain the viewer, seemed to be fading into the background, replaced by a smirking self-awareness. A gory flippancy took center stage, constantly reworking the same old ideas, but now with the excuse that it was all some kind of cineaste exercise. The genre came to look like a house made of plastic in which all the mirrors were actually televisions, endlessly replaying bits and pieces of its own past.
The "New Horror" movement is one large wink at the audience, a bloody sneer perversely touted as a "celebration" of the genre. The success of Scream may have signaled a new interest in Horror cinema, but the film defined as it generated. It's like putting blinders on a baby as soon as it can see. Hollywood and viewers seemed taken by the film's charming yet strained cleverness and rushed to embrace the new aesthetic. It's actually very telling that Wes Craven, a hackish director whose other movies (with the notable exception of A Nightmare on Elm Street) are mostly botched attempts to grave rob from other, better films, directed Scream. Even if he and Kevin Williamson originally envisioned the film as a lovingly spoofy homage (and yes, it somewhat is) everyone else saw it as a blueprint. So we had Scream II, Event Horizon, I Know What You Did Last Summer, An American Werewolf in Paris, Urban Legendand on and on. American Horror looked fatally injured. And then three kids got lost in the woods.
The Blair Witch Project is something of a minor revolution. Actually, it's not so much a step forward as a return to a path Horror began taking some time ago. At Horror cinema's heart is a terrible ambiguity which makes the universe appallingly unknowable. The world is rendered strange because there is a radical disruption of perception as events previously imagined impossible begin happening. The Blair Witch Project is the first American horror film in some time to address this disconcerting uncertainty.
The plot is pure Brothers Grimm: curiosity lures "children" into the dark forest where they encounter a Witch...or do they? One of the wonderful things about Blair Witch is its narrative ambiguity. What actually happened to the students, Josh, Heather and Mike, who we know from the start did
indeed vanish? With this simple touch, the directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, begin disrupting the "New Horror" formula right from the very beginning. The question is no longer what happens to the characters but rather how and why, an effective complication. Blair Witch is plugged
directly into the power of the campfire spook tale, the heightening of the listener's senses to the point that every little thing becomes a sign of impending doom. Darkness thrives in the film, overriding the meager strength of a flashlight stretched to its utmost as a wall of black relentlessly presses in on the beleaguered filmmakers. Sound leaks out in
terrifying spurts: the smashing of trees, the cackling/gibbering of something far too old to be human, the laughter of children. It's all caught at a distance, barely recordable and terrifying, echoes in the woods which have fed on all of our overwrought imaginations...but now it's real.
In The Blair Witch Project there is no need for gore or cynicism; when the fear hits, it embeds itself in the bone. Working with an almost anthropological glee, Myrick and Sanchez have not so much created an old fashion horror film as a primal one. In the process, they managed to return
the wonderfully terrifying ambiguity seemingly lost to a battered genre.
And the DVD release of the film is as wonderfully rich as the film itself. There is a surplus of materials to be found on the Blair Witch disc, including trailers, new footage and commentary track, but most impressive of all is a "documentary" which aired on the Sci-Fi channel shortly before the film's theatrical release. Curse of the Blair Witch proports to reveal the truth behind the Blair Witch legend and features interviews with family members of the three missing film students, law enforcement officials detailing the missing persons investigation as well as historians and folklorists who provide insights into the Blair Witch's history.
Atmospheric and eerily reminiscent of any number of documentaries one might find on the History channel, Curse is almost as creepy as the film itself and is just as skillful a bit of spook show hookum. Directed by Sanchez and Merrick, the piece is, in part, a loving tribute to classic paranormal investigation programs such as the immortal In Search Of ... and is also another savy piece in the marketing campaign of the film. As both, it works beautifully. While certainly a hoot for anyone who has ever enjoyed being creeped out by those creaky old spook shows, Curse is yet another example of the filmmakers ability to bend reality to fit their vision. By weaving a seemingly recognizable world around their film, a world that appears to be the viewer's own by way of the aesthetic assumptions of "documentary," Blair Witch Project's own attempted production of "truth" is given an added boost.
The "reality within reality" kind of bracketing that takes place between the structures of Blair Witch Project and Curse of the Blair Witch is perhaps one of the few examples of a film's advertising actually working as something more than the trappings of mere commercialism.
As welcome an addition as Curse is, the filmmakers commentary track emerges as among the best I have ever heard. After a relatively jokey opening which seemed to promise little but a lot of goofing off, the track quickly becomes a fascinating series of behind the scenes anecdotes and revelations of technique which are all the more compelling due to the film's stated desire to hide its very "constructedness." Such a cinematic masquerade of the dressing of fiction for fact can only, paradoxically, increase the interest in the shaping of that fiction, and listening to the filmmakers explanations of the logistics of the demanding shoot is like piecing together a particularly rewarding jigsaw puzzle.
The text pieces which detail the history of the Blair Witch legend are a bit redundant after the inclusion of Curse of the Blair Witch but certainly add to the overall documentary agenda of the disc. And the one scene chosen by the filmmakers to be included under the banner of "newly
discovered footage" is ultimately of passing interest, although why they settled on this single sequence out of the mounds of material they shot is a curiosity. Yet for anyone who enjoyed the film and seeks to immerse themselves even further into its fabricated world, the DVD is near indispensable.
(Released by Artisan Entertainment and rated "R" for frightening situaions and strong language.)