I can appreciate a lot of things about The Blair Witch Project: its reliance on handcams, its meager budget and not inconsequential box office receipts, and its heralding of sorts of a new, personalized (rather than the group slashers of the 80s) era of American horror. That said, I can't really appreciate the film itself, a disappointing bore with an insufficient quantity of real scares.
Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams all play versions of themselves in this now-infamous pseudo-documentary about three would-be documentarians who become lost in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland. As they trudge deeper into the woods, it becomes apparent that there's something bigger at play - the supernatural, townies playing with their minds, or their own fear.
Perhaps Roosevelt was right - the only thing to fear in this movie is fear itself. The film is designed to get you jumping at every sound in the hopes that you've put yourself into the shoes of the characters - who are presented as real people who disappeared in 1994. Unfortunately, this tactic flops fantastically. Instead of building tension, the film seems to sit around waiting for something to happen. After a while, the pacing of the film becomes unbearably slow, as repetitive scenes of trudging through the woods pad the movie with unnecessary filler.
But hold on, you say, those scenes were necessary to develop character! Okay, I'll bite. I then respond: but the characters are overdrawn, amateurish at worst. Donahue occasionally aside (whose infamous "apology" scene has been redone, remixed, satirized, parodied, and lampooned nonstop), the cast spends a lot of time drawing their characters in very broad strokes. Is this a descent into madness, I had to ask myself as one character sat rocking back and forth under a tree, or a crude approximation of a caricature of madness? If the acting had been more credible, relying less on me mentally becoming them, it might have been scarier.
As it is, the only truly scary moments in the film come at night, when the cameras can't capture very much. The eerie sound effects are adequately creepy, and I've always been a bit terrified of the voices of small children at night in haunted woods, but these scenes are few and far between - probably a contributory factor to their success, since every nightfall in the film makes me wonder if it'll live up to the previous night's scare tactics.
Then there's the ending, which I won't give too much away. This is really the only truly successful scene in the movie, in which two of the characters - one having gone missing earlier in the film - come upon a house in the woods that, we're led to believe, was the site of seven child murders in the 1940s. As the action cuts between two different cameras, screams and obscured vision go a long way to finally building the terror for which I was so desperately grasping. But then, just as the most disturbing visual of the film comes in (SPOILER: one character shaking while standing in a corner, similar to how we were told the dead children were murdered) -- it stops. The film ends, leaving the fate of all three characters open-ended though enveloped by screams.
I'm no opponent of ambiguity; in fact, I love it when it's done right. The Blair Witch Project doesn't seem to leave itself eloquently ambiguous; it feels as though someone didn't finish writing the script. (I'm struggling now to recall a good example of an ambiguous finale - help me out!) There's a sequel, but I doubt I'll be seeing it. Ultimately, ten years after its initial release, The Blair Witch Project fails to live up to its own hype.
The MPAA gave The Blair Witch Project an "R for language." F-bombs are numerous (somewhere in excess of 150, according to IMDb), but there are also a few grisly images and the aforementioned mood of dread that pervades the whole movie. Definitely not for the kids.