Blair Witch is a refreshing breakthrough, a horror movie based on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
Three student filmmakers, carrying a 16-millimeter camera and a video camera, set out to make a documentary about the Blair witch. In the first half of the movie, they ask a group of citizens of Birkettsville, Maryland (formerly Blair, we are told) about the witch, and each gives a different answer. The witch was a male killer of children in the 1940's. Responsible for the mysterious deaths of seven men in the woods around the turn of the century. A hairy-bodied female seen floating in the woods by another interviewee in her youth. We are left with the vague sense that there is no witch, or no real tradition of one: everything once feared is the Blair witch.
The conceit of the movie--which due to an adroit Internet and word of mouth campaign, caused many people to believe it is a real documentary-- is that the three filmmakers then vanished in the woods and that "a year later, their footage was found." Everything is seen from the point of view of one of the cameras; we are always switching between the black and white "sixteen" and the video camera. If the dialog is improvised, it is done so much more adroitly than usually; it has none of that repetitive, dreary, "aren't I being inventive" feel.
The three hike into the woods to visit a cemetery and get lost. Here the suspension of belief required is not very difficult. They try all the logical things that people do in this dilemma: follow the map and then, when the map is lost, hike unerringly south on the assumption that they will hit a road. But they end up back where they started, deceived by the compass. (My wife, who does not enjoy horror movies, said, "The Blair witch must be magnetic. Even I've watched enough X-Files to know that.")
Each night, as they camp out, something comes to frighten them. The first night, there are merely noises in the woods; given the poor sound quality of the film--both a limitation of the tiny budget and a deliberate effect--the sounds which frighten them at first sound like nothing more than water dripping nearby, the usual anonymous cracking and settling sounds one hears in the woods late at night, or at most the passage of a large animal such as a deer. On subsequent mornings they find little stone cairns outside the tent, bundles of twigs, and twig effigies hanging from trees. The special effects never become more complex than this. There is no morphing, no monsters, no severed heads or spurting blood, and we never see the witch or whatever it is pursuing them. It is the least violent horror film in decades.
We watch them fall apart: the usual alternation of despair, recrimination, attempts to reconcile and help each other. There are well-played, very convincing scenes in which one young man admits he kicked the map into the creek because he couldn't read it; the other young man goes off under a tree to cry; the young woman leading the group, in a memorable sequence where she has shoved the video camera close up into her own face, apologizes to the camera for the destiny into which she has led her little group. One of the themes of this sparse movie, like last year's similarly stripped down The Cube, is that people trying to cooperate to get out of a dilemma will wind up destroying each other instead. Both movies represent a prisoner's dilemma.
One of the young men disappears in the night and on the next nights, the others think they hear him nearby crying out in pain. On the final morning, they find a bloody tooth wrapped in twigs; that night, they hear him calling the girl's name. They go in search, find an abandoned house, and in an ultimate eerie scene, climb to the top floor and then down again in search of their friend, get separated, and each get knocked on the head. We never see their attacker: in each case, we hear a blow, and the camera--our point of view--falls to the ground and stops running. The movie is a series of diminishing circles--the town of Birkettsville (formerly Blair); the circle they walk in the woods; the inside of their tent; a last view of a square foot of floor; then darkness. Now it finally comes to a point.
In McLuhan's terms, the movie manages to turn a hot medium, film, into a cool one, television. The information presented on the screen is very spare--much of it is video; when it is film, it is black and white; whole minutes of the movie, in the woods at night or inside the tent, pass without anything on the screen. McLuhan's point is that the viewer participates in a cool medium, supplying much of the missing information, while a hot medium makes the viewer passive by supplying so much information. The viewer must engage with Blair Witch; there is so little to the story that the viewer must provide his own fears, his own experiences in the woods, to fill in the blanks.
Trying to analyze the movie as a logical act of story-telling is almost useless. To the townspeople, the Blair witch is anything which frightened them in the past two hundred years. We cannot tell if the young people are stalked and killed by a supernatural force, one or more of the townspeople they met, or even by their own colleague--as the nightly noises don't become recognizable until he has vanished. There is no Blair witch; there is only a Blair witch project, which, like many projects, ends very badly.
Blair Witch proves that good movies can be made without money--in fact that better movies can usually be made with less money than bad ones. We are back to the primal source of human story-telling. Blair Witch shows you fear in a bundle of twigs. The Hollywood studio that remakes Blair Witch a few years from now with seething protoplasm, animals morphing into humans and severed heads dripping blood will have missed the point, transformed the extraordinary into the mediocre. Blair Witch proves that less is more.