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Saturday, June 22, 2024

'The Blair Witch Project' will bewitch audiences all over again

It’s late October. The leaves have only just started to dress themselves in soft, pastel yellows and brilliant reds. An electric chill is in the air, and you can smell the musty tang of cold, damp earth as your boots crunch through a blanket of dead leaves. You reach Picnic Point at sunset, and the burnt umber essence of crackling pine warms your party’s trembling fingers. Marshmallows are passed around, maybe followed by sticks to toast them and that one guy fusses over getting his s’more EXACTLY right. Everybody swaps stories, laughter and a few terrible jokes.

Then twilight descends into midnight. The lights across Lake Mendota die, the moon is swallowed by dark, swirling clouds and the fire shrinks to smoldering charcoal. Cold winds hiss in strange voices beyond the dying glow. Lakeshore Path yawns like a maw of stone and bark, grinning at you behind your back. Beneath the joy of good friends and a pretty fire, you know, eventually, you only have one way to get home.

Are you frightened yet? Good, you’re ready to watch “The Blair Witch Project.” I have no idea how this film got the bad rap it has today (actually, I have an idea, but that’s another article), because it’s probably the best ghost story I’ve ever experienced and certainly one of the best-told ghost stories for several generations—“The Devil’s Backbone” notwithstanding.

Not to say I was raised on ghost stories, but I’m probably not the only one that sunk deep into the wonderful ridiculousness of “Scary Stories to tell in the Dark”. I still dream about those illustrations coming to life and leaping out of the book to bite my eyeballs out.

When I saw that WUD Film was showing “Blair” a few weeks out, and with nothing better to do, I decided I would give it a shot. I had really no idea what I was getting into, but my expectations were “meh.” I hated “Paranormal Activity” (PICK ONE), and “Cloverfield” was an interesting idea that crashed on weak execution. Documentary-style films can work, but they have to feel like something that you might actually find in a camera. NOT like productions.

Well, as such things often do, it turns out that the films that try to make the “Blair” lightning strike again (and again, and again and etc.) are nothing like their predecessor. Where the protagonists of “Paranormal Activity” come off as completely brain-dead, the main character of “Blair,” Heather (Heather Donahue), is driven and opportunistic. Instead of an empty house that reminds me more of “Poltergeist” than anything, we have a tall, formless wood in the middle of autumn. Instead of a demon possession (it’s been done to death since “The Exorcist,” people), we have… something.

I know that sounds like a criticism, but it isn’t. Lost and cold and hungry in the middle of Nowhere, Maryland, the kids are being hunted. Hunted by something. Is it the Blair Witch? Is it a wild animal? Is it somebody playing a prank? Perhaps it’s nothing. What if it IS nothing? Are the kids losing their minds? Are the sounds on the camera real? The “found footage” nature of the film asks us to take the details at face value, but as the camera switches between all three of the subjects, the composition starts to feel more and more subjective. What if three lost, panicking children are merely going slowly insane in the wild?

All of these questions create uncertainty, and “Blair Witch” lives in the land of uncertainty. From uncertainty and a threatening atmosphere, it bears a raw, instinctual kind of fear from an old, wrinkled womb. “Blair Witch” tells us some things, you can’t explain.

It takes a very skilled filmmaker to create that tension. We don’t KNOW what’s in the dark. We don’t KNOW what’s hunting these three college kids. It leaves little piles of stones around the tent. The kids find a grove with human-shaped stick sculptures hanging from the trees. Children laugh in the night. Are they going in circles, or is the compass lying to them?

“Blair Witch,” having a budget of about half a shoestring, knows what every storyteller worth their salt knows: You have to tell the story right. You have to go slow, building a horrible sense of dread that squirms under your skin and itches. The details are sparse, and they come from often-unreliable sources. Sometimes they contradict each other. The mystery expands and the noose tightens around your mind.

WUD Film is showing “The Blair Witch Project” in a few weeks (Friday, Oct. 18, at midnight at the Marquee). I HIGHLY suggest you go see it. Then maybe take a walk to Picnic Point.

It’s late October, after all…

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