Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Special Edition DVD
Artisan Entertainment, fullscreen 1.33:1, languages: English Dolby Surround [CC], subtitles: English, single side-dual layer, 18 chapters, rated R, 87 min., $29.98, street date 10/22/99.
Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Starring Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard.
On October 21, 1994, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams hiked into Maryland's Black Hills Forest to shoot a documentary film on a local legend, The Blair Witch. They were never heard from again.
One year later, their footage was found. The Blair Witch Project is their legacy. It documents the filmmakers' harrowing five day journey through the Black Hills Forest, and captures all of the terrifying events that led up to their disappearance.
Shot on 16mm film by Joshua Leonard with sound recorded by Michael Williams, Heather Donahue both performed the narration for the film and shot its behind the scenes footage. Heather's High 8 video recordings document the growing rifts and realizations between the filmmakers as each frustrating day and terrifying night passes.
Boy, does the old "bandwagon" trend quickly change! Just a few months ago, the Internet was awash in rave after rave for some unknown indie feature called The Blair Witch Project. After this apparent groundswell of grassroots support, the movie became a major hit and now owns the honor of the most profitable film ever (when one subtracts production costs from box office take).
Fast forward to the present day and all I seem to be able to find on Internet newsgroups are comments that ridicule and lambaste BWP. Three months ago, people were knocking themselves out to praise this film, now there's a stampede to kick it in the rear. What happened here?
I guess it's that old devil backlash! People love the underdog, and a film made for about $50,000 up against movies that cost $100 million and more definitely qualifies as such. However, BWP made so much money and did so well financially that it eventually lost its underdog status. At that point, it became just another overhyped picture, and lots of people didn't get all the fuss. How quickly the worm does turn!
I saw BWP during its theatrical run, but I honestly derived almost no opinion of the film after that screening. Why? Because I could barely watch it. The camerawork was so jerky that I quickly developed motion sickness. I stuck it out through the end of the film, but I only actually watched maybe 60% of the entire film. Sure, I listened to the whole thing, but since I didn't actually see much of it, I don't really feel that I've truly experienced the movie.
I decided to get the DVD to give the film another shot. My first - and most important - hope was that the bouncy camera wouldn't bother me when shown on the small screen. Happily, that was the case. I felt no ill effects as I viewed BWP on my 27 inch TV; as such, I felt that I was actually able to take in the whole experience.
Interestingly, I think this put me in a different position than if I was able to fully watch the movie the first time. I think that one of the main reasons so many people now seem unhappy with BWP is due to the fact that the hype over the film was so intense. People were conditioned to expect the scariest movie ever, and thus they had incredibly high expectations. Considering what a simple film BWP is, those expectations were unrealistic; it's probably best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible, and certainly without the expectation that it'll be some bone-chilling nightmare.
Obviously, I went into my second viewing of BWP with a fair amount of foreknowledge, but this was good in that I no longer had all the hype on my mind. I think I was in a better state of mind to really watch the movie.
So what do I now think? I find BWP to be much more spooky and creepy than scary, per se. The whole thing feels like a paranoid nightmare than a terrifying one; we're never really quite clear what's happening, so more of a sense of discomfort arises than true fear.
Probably the main reason BWP works is the very believable acting of Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard, our three "heroes." Of course, once you know something behind the making of the film, you know that a lot of their best work wasn't really acting; the filmmakers played some serious mind games on these folks, so it wasn't too hard for them to muster up the requisite feelings of fear and desperation. Also, since each actor was essentially playing him/herself, that made it easier.
Nonetheless, no matter how much director-led manipulation went on behind the scenes, these three still knew they were making a movie, so the realism in their performances remains fairly amazing. Had any one of them seemed less than one hundred percent true to the situation, the movie would have failed.
Much of the credit for the success of BWP obviously rests with the directors for creating such a clever piece of "performance art" filmmaking. It'd be one thing if BWP scared you if you didn't know if it was fact or fiction, but the fact that the movie works even when you know it's fake and know the secrets of how much of it was done stands as testimony to the high quality of their efforts.
Actually, no matter how much I liked the acting and the creativity of the project, I was surprised that I found the film to be as effective as I thought it was the second time around. As I mentioned, BWP is best viewed by someone who knows nothing about it; it truly would be much more effective if you had no prior information about the project. As such, it should probably become dull upon subsequent viewings just because you know all its secrets.
However, that wasn't the case for me, and I think - again - that the fact I had an idea what to expect made a difference. I knew better what the pacing would be like, so I didn't feel impatient like I did the first time. I also recognized that it would focus more on the three main characters than anything else, so I knew not to wait for plot revelations that would never come.
That last point may be most significant for many viewers, because I'm sure that some folks have been frustrated by the lack of concrete resolution of BWP. We never really know what's going on or what happens to our protagonists; it's virtually all left to the imagination, and that can really bother some folks. While a second viewing doesn't make any of these areas more clear, it does afford you the opportunity to examine aspects of the film more closely and try to find clues. Maybe those hints exist, maybe they don't; all I do know is that BWP made for a surprisingly rich experience when I watched it a second (or first and a half, in my case) time.
Only time will tell what place in the "scary movie" pantheon BWP will occupy. Actually, the distance that time affords is more important for this film than for most simply because of all the hype; it needs to vanish before we can examine BWP with any kind of objectivity, and that's going to take a while. The film's tremendous box office success elevated it to a level on which it really doesn't belong, because BWP is a "cult classic" at its heart. I have a feeling that's where the movie will eventually reside; it will endure and maintain popularity over the years from a relatively small group of fans, while the masses who saw it because of the hype but didn't "get it" will quickly discard it. As far as how folks like me - who liked it but didn't think it was anything too fantastic - will feel in a few years ... ask me then. (There's a cop out for you!)
Even though it's just hit the video shelves, Artisan's DVD release of The Blair Witch Project has already engendered a tremendous amount of controversy and a lot of ill-will. I'll try to cover the issues that I've heard as I go along.
Artisan have released BWP in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD. Mini-controversy #1: all the people who are bothered that BWP is not a) letterboxed, and b) enhanced for widescreen televisions. As I mentioned, the theatrical aspect ratio is 1.33:1, which is just the same as your 4X3 TV; as such, there's no need for letterboxing since the theatrical ratio equals the one you normally see on your TV screen. This also obviates the usefulness of 16X9 enhancement, since the source material does not approximate a widescreen ratio.
Strangely, Artisan have decided to present BWP in a fullscreen ratio but not actually fullscreen; the film is "windowboxed," which means that a small black box borders the image on all four sides. This is mini-controversy #3. Why did they do this? I have no clue. I can't honestly say that it bothers me - if I can watch 2.35:1 presentations, I can certainly tolerate this minor intrusion - but it does seem completely unnecessary. The only semi-positive effect I sensed from it was the fact that it sort of made it feel like I was watching a film on a movie screen at home; the windowboxing offers rounded corners and looks just the way my old Super 8 films did when I'd view them in my basement. This does create an odd distancing effect for the viewer that in some ways makes the material seem more real. Of course, some argue the opposite and say that if the movie was presented truly fullscreen that they'd be more involved in the image. To each their own. While I didn't mind the windowboxing and did see a minor benefit to it, I still chock it up as a strange choice and one that's much more likely to irritate than ingratiate.
Mini-controversy #4: the source material used. BWP was filmed partly on Hi-8 video and partially on 16 millimeter film; in case you're confused, the Hi-8 is color and the 16 mm is black and white. For the theatrical presentation, the video footage had to be transferred to film, and the 16 mm had to be blown up to 35 mm. For some reason, Artisan apparently chose to use one of these film prints for the master of the DVD instead of using the original source material. This results in an alteration in the quality of the Hi-8 footage, which could/should have been transferred straight from video, instead of the video-film-video work done here.
This decision is another head-scratcher, but one I'll go out on a limb and defend. The thing is, you can see what some of the video-video material looks like because it's available on this DVD. The one deleted scene provided and the Curse of the Blair Witch program both feature video footage that didn't go through the video-film-video transformation, and it looks very different from the material we see in the actual film transfer. In the latter, there isn't a whole lot of difference in appearance between the 16 mm footage and the Hi-8 stuff; the latter is in color and is less grainy, but otherwise the two seem pretty similar. When you see the Hi-8 material that's gone from video to video, it looks just like the way we're used to seeing video footage appear; it lacks the odd bastard-filmic qualities of the material we see in the body of the movie itself.
As I alluded, this decision has cheesed off a lot of folks, and in a fine interview presented by the DVD File, co-director Eduardo Sanchez states that he hoped Artisan would go the video-video route. (Apparently the filmmakers had very little involvement in the making of this DVD, though Sanchez states that they may get almost free reign over a possible second DVD of BWP.) It may seem futile for me to argue against the wishes of one of the directors, but I want to go on record as indicating that I think Artisan made the right decision. Yes, the video-video footage would look superior to the video-film-video work, but that doesn't matter to me in this case.
DVD transfer quality is important only to heighten the viewer's involvement in and enjoyment of a film. Consistency is one important factor. One of the most frustrating DVD experiences is watching a movie that looks great one minute but seems terrible the next; the variations in quality completely disrupt the viewer's attention. (That's not to argue that a consistently bad transfer is preferable, of course, since it would at no time involve the viewer.)
BWP is a different kind of animal because it shouldn't look too good. If it boasted the cinematographical quality of Titanic then we wouldn't buy it; it's handheld and homemade and needs to look that way. And it also needs to be consistent. One major - to me - benefit of using the film master for the DVD image instead of alternating 16 mm film with directly-copied video is the level of sameness it brings. The straight video footage looks so different - and is so much more vivid - than the 16 mm shots that I think it would have been jarring to see them up against each other. I believe I would have ended up focussing much more on the quality of the image than on the content of the film. As it stands, the two sources blend together pretty seamlessly and the differing formats do not become an issue. I'd be curious to see the movie with the video-video transfer, but I honestly think this version will remain the most satisfactory.
As I did when I reviewed" - another 16 mm "homemade" movie - I had a terrible time conjuring a rating for both the image and the sound quality of The Blair Witch Project. Does BWP look good? No, it generally looks pretty crappy. But it's supposed to look crappy. I settled on a "B-" rating because I thought it appeared surprisingly presentable and because I liked the consistency of the image. The transfer itself seems very good; it appears to replicate the original material nicely, and that's the most important factor with a source such as this. In fact, if I forget the debate about what source should have been used and just base my rating upon the accuracy with which Artisan transferred the film, I'd probably give them an "A" - they seem to have done an excellent job of replicating the movie. However, my conscience will not allow me to give a picture that looks this bad an "A"; I had a hard time going above the "C" I gave to Clerks. I bumped BWP up to the "B-" level simply because even though it was shot under worse conditions, it still looks pretty decent. It's blurry, it's grainy, it's jerky - all the way it should be. Objectively, BWP could look better, but subjectively, this is the way I like it to appear.
The audio mix of BWP is a simple stereo job. This part of the DVD is almost as hard to rate as was the video transfer; after all, much of the sound was recorded off of the Hi-8 camera's microphone. However, the audio did receive some sweetening and added effects in the studio, so it's not as "pure" an effort as was the video.
Obviously, this track is very limited. Really, it's pretty monophonic in nature, since most of what we hear is the participant's voices and they tend to stick pretty closely to the center. However, ambient sounds do spread to the left and the right, and they add a pretty effective atmosphere. The clarity of the audio is very surprising; speech in particular sounds quite clear and natural. Well, it's clear and natural when appropriate; a lot of times it sounds muffled and distant, but that's because it's supposed to sound muffled and distant. When a speaker is right in front of the camera, though, it sounds quite good.
There's no score or surround effects to discuss here; as I mentioned, this is a tremendously basic track. Still, it's a very effective track; it'd work much less well if it had more to it. Actually, I think this is a prime candidate to listen to through headphones. I didn't do so this time - to make sure my reviews are consistent, I listen to all my DVDs through the same system and speakers - but I think that the intimacy added through the use of headphones would enhance the BWP experience. It would make the audio more claustrophobic, and it would also let you better pick up on the details. Anyway, though the soundtrack to BWP has many limitations, it's effectively done. At least it didn't generate any controversies.
The same cannot be said for the supplements on the BWP DVD, though this area hasn't raised the same ruckus as has been heard over the image. Here's the deal: when Artisan first started to work on the BWP DVD, it was rumored that they'd release a movie-only edition in the fall of 1999 and a deluxe special edition would follow sometime in the spring of 2000. However, when the DVD was actually announced, it was a special edition, but one that didn't include all of the materials that were to follow on the rumored product.
No big deal, right? Wrong, and here's mini-controversy # 5. Since as I mentioned earlier, co-director Sanchez is discussing the possibility that a second more deluxe DVD may appear at a later time. This policy doesn't sit well with people. No one seems to mind if you have a basic DVD and a special edition as long as they know about both ahead of time. What people hate is the Buena Vista policy: for Armageddon, A Bug's Life, Shakespeare In Love, and Rushmore, they announced and released movie-only versions of those films but didn't announce plans for special editions until after the basic copies had already gone on sale. This cheesed off a lot of folks who bought the movie-only discs; had they known about the more deluxe copies, they would have waited. As it stood, they felt like they were forced to buy two DVDs of the movies they wanted.
The situation with BWP isn't nearly that bad if just because a) the second release may never happen - plans for it seem unclear, whereas most of the Buena Vista special edition DVDs were definitely already in the making prior to the release of the basic editions - and b) the current DVD of BWP is far from basic. Really, it's a very nice little package that clearly earns the title of "special edition."
One prime attraction here is a fun audio commentary from co-directors Sanchez and Daniel Myrick and producers Robin Cowie, Michael Monello, and Gregg Hale. It reminded me a lot of the terrific track that accompanies The Usual Suspects in that the participants don't take themselves or their film too seriously. They provide some very interesting information, of course, but they also keep the tone light and breezy and they keep the commentary from being ponderous or dull. This DVD skimps a bit on the actual "making of..." data - most of the extras prefer to focus on more of the faux-mythology - but the commentary makes for a pretty good source of behind the scenes facts.
Only two other supplements on the DVD indicate that BWP isn't a true story. These are both text features. One is a standard cast (three members) and crew (seven members) biography section; some of the data is of dubious truthfulness - Mike Williams' bio states that he played ball in the Yankees' farm system, which the filmmakers indicate is a complete lie stuck in Williams' resume - but it offers some basic information. Another section offers some good production notes; these don't even approach the level of "exhaustive," but they help round out the information heard in the audio commentary.
The remainder of the DVD's supplements discuss the "legend" of the Blair Witch. Easily the best of these is a 45-minute "documentary" called The Curse of the Blair Witch. This highly entertaining program (which first appeared on the Sci-Fi Channel) purports to document the history of the Blair Witch and it also examines the mystery behind the disappearances of Heather, Mike and Josh. It's a terrifically clever and fascinating "mockumentary" and it really adds to the atmosphere of the movie. Actually, in some ways it's better than the movie; the thoroughness with which the mythology is created and then replicated here is terrific. I hadn't seen this program prior to now - no cable! - but it makes for a very worthwhile supplement.
One deleted scene appears on this DVD. It shows our three protagonists talking things over at night in their tent. Mini-controversy #6: the lack of additional deleted scenes. People expected more than just one unused clip, and this situation is exacerbated by the apparent inclusion of more deleted bits on a VHS version (for the record, my web-searching was not able to confirm or deny this possibility). VHS lowlifes get extras that we DVD folks do not? Zounds!
While I'd certainly like the right to see this clips and have them on the DVD, if the one included deleted scene is any representative, we ain't missing much. The thing about BWP is that it's a very tightly edited film and probably is just right at its current length. I can't imagine there's much that additional material would add. If anything, it'd just either make redundant what we already know - which is largely what happens in the included clip - or further spell out things, which then would take away from the appealing mystery of the project. Normally I love deleted scenes, but this is one case where I just don't care. The one we get lasts about five minutes and does nothing for me.
Finally, the BWP DVD features a text "history" of the Blair Witch legend; this is of negligible interest if just because it simply recaps information offered in the Curse... program. We also get three trailers for BWP and one for Artisans' upcoming DVD of The Stand. The latter is touted mainly because it's the "first-ever DVD-18!" Well, whoopee for it! In case you haven't heard, DVD-18 is a double-sided, double-layered DVD; that means they can fit something like eight hours of video on one DVD (both sides). Big deal; I still have to flip the thing, so I'm just as happy if there's a second DVD. Well, maybe DVD-18 will be cheaper to produce than double-DVD sets, so studios will be more willing to release extremely long projects. (Universal, are you listening? We want The Frighteners Collector's Edition on DVD, dammit!)
Anyway, back to the BWP trailers. One is listed as the theatrical trailer, while the other two are "teasers." This normally means that the theatrical clip is longer and more detailed than are the "teasers." Such is not the case here. All three clips are pretty similar, and the "teasers" are actually longer than the trailer; they both run about 45 seconds, whereas the theatrical piece only goes for about 35 seconds. The main difference between them is that the theatrical trailer includes brief quotes from reviews of the film ("Scary as hell!") that don't appear on the "teasers." They're good clips, nonetheless.
And this is a very fine DVD, despite all the controversies. Both the film itself and this DVD have seen boohoogles of detractors, but don't let them get you down. It's a good movie, and one that stands up surprisingly well to repeated viewings. The image and sound seem as good as can be expected, and the DVD's supplements are of very fine quality. Whether The Blair Witch Project will end up as a horror classic or just a forgotten fad I don't know; I do know that I'm pleased with the DVD and happy I added it to my collection.