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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/21/99

The Blair Witch Project
Special Edition - 1999 (1999) Haxan Films/Artisan Entertainment (Artisan)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

The Blair Witch Project: Special Edition Film Ratings: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/A-

Specs and Features

81 mins, R, "windowboxed" full frame (1.66:1), single-sided, dual-layered (movie on one layer, extras on the other), Amaray keep case packaging, commentary track (with writer/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, and producers Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale and Michael Monello), Curse of the Blair Witch Sci-Fi Channel documentary, 5 minutes of "newly discovered" footage, The Blair Witch Legacy timeline, cast and crew biographies, production notes, theatrical trailer, 2 teaser trailers, preview for DVD-18 The Stand, DVD-ROM features (including a map, and excerpts from the Blair Witch comic book, and the book Blair Witch Project: A Dossier), animated film-themed menu screens with music and sound effects, scene access (18 chapters for the film, 11 more for the documentary), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none, Close Captioned

In 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary on the legend of the Blair Witch. Several years later, their footage was found. That's the fictional backstory for the ultra-low budget The Blair Witch Project, which became the runaway film sensation of 1999. Shot for a meager $22,000, the film was picked up by Artisan Entertainment at Sundance, and was distributed theatrically with great success, even up against Star Wars: Episode I, eventually grossing over $140 million in the U.S. alone. And now, Blair Witch has arrived on DVD, as a fairly decent special edition from Artisan.

The making of the film is a fascinating story itself. Inspired by the documentary style of old In Search Of episodes, Blair Witch was shot combat-style by the actors themselves, as a "film within a film". Writer/directors Dan Myrick and Ed Sánchez found a trio of actors who basically play themselves, reacting method-style to what's going on around them. The actors knew the basic idea of the story - these three characters go into the woods to make their film, and they never return. In order to shoot this, the directors took the actors into the woods, and had them record their own journey in character, using Hi-8 and B&W 16mm cameras. They told them where to hike to, where to stop and camp, and gave them each very basic character directions (often left for each actor to find in "drops" each day). Very rarely did the directors actually break the fictional world, and walk up to direct in a traditional way. Rather, they would set things up for the actors to find in the woods, or do something near where the actors were camped (make noises for example), and let the actors react to it. Often, the tension you see is real. It was cold, it was miserable and it was not much fun. The actors eventually started getting on each other's nerves, and it shows up on screen. The result is a very convincing descent into madness for Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard and Mike Williams.

The Blair Witch Project works, for the most part, because of something Hitchcock knew well about creating film fear - what you don't see is MUCH more terrifying than what you do. Blair Witch is definitely creepy, and boasts an elaborately researched and developed backstory, dealing with the legend of the Blair Witch itself. But I have to say, that I was expecting it to be much scarier than it actually is. Maybe with 300 freaked-out teens around you in a darkened theater at a Friday midnight show, this would really tweak your spook factor. But at home, it looses some of its impact, due to a puzzling decision in the way the film was transferred for home video (more on that in a moment). Blair Witch is more than just a film, it's an experience... much of which has played out on the Internet. If you were plugged into all the hype, and the shocking true-life feel to the "Students Missing" publicity campaign, the film probably had more impact on you.

Unfortunately, another problem that I (and the rest of the people I saw this with) had, was that Heather comes off as extremely annoying. She spends so much time arguing with Josh and Mike, and ordering everyone around, that she ends up grating on your last nerve. You want to feel sympathy for her, given the ordeal she's going through, but you end up just hoping she'll die soon. I also wish the film had worked more effectively not just to build tension, but to sustain it. The real fear these characters have, is having to spend another night in the woods with whatever it is in the dark that's toying with them. But rather than making you endure long, tortuous nights of fear, the nighttime scenes are over far too quickly. So you get great tension and chills... and then it's morning, and the characters all start arguing again. This, I think, is a result of the shooting style and editing - more than 40 hours of footage were cobbled together to build the narrative, and it gets a little choppy. Still, Blair Witch is definitely an achievement for everyone involved, and it's a much-needed reminder to the suits in Hollywood that you don't need $100 million to make an entertaining film.

So how does the DVD stack up? Pretty well actually (with just a few exceptions). The packaging claims that the video here is fullframe, but that's not technically true. The film is presented in a "windowbox", that simulates the view through a camera viewfinder, so you get a black matte all around the picture. This is irritating for two reasons. First, you lose valuable lines of picture resolution - never a good thing. But more importantly, the artificial windowbox takes away from the immediacy of the shot-on-video footage. I'm sure this was how the film was composed on film for the theaters, but for video, I would MUCH rather the studio had gone back to the original source master tape that the film was created from in the first place. That way, you could ditch the artificial matte - I mean, we don't need a false effect to know we're watching video... cause we really are! It's fine for theaters, but it detracts from the DVD. Take a look at the "recently discovered footage" to see what I mean - it's presented in true fullframe, and it feels much more like you're spying on a real moment between these characters, than what we see filtered through the fake "camera's eye".

The video still looks good, however, in a spliced-together mix of video and B&W film - this is supposed to look like it was shot by a bunch of students on a low budget, and it does. But for what it is, it still looks fine. The audio is also fully adequate for what it's supposed to be, in Dolby Digital 2.0. This isn't going to thrill your ears, but it is exactly what it's supposed to be, and it's effective.

The extras are pretty impressive. To start with, you get the complete 44-minute documentary that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, The Curse of the Blair Witch. It sort of continues the story of the fictional world, after the students have gone missing. Think of it as a documentary on the disappearance of three filmmakers who were making a documentary - make sense? And there is a thoroughly interesting commentary track with the directors and producers - really my favorite part of the disc. Blair Witch is probably the most interesting film to come around in a long time, and hearing these guys talk about their struggle to make the film, and all of the fascinating little behind-the-scenes stories, is a treat. Also included are the 5 minutes of "newly discovered footage" (I sure would have liked a LOT more of this), cast & crew bios, production notes, a theatrical trailer, 2 teaser trailers, a preview for Artisan's upcoming DVD-18 version of The Stand, and something called The Blair Witch Legacy, which is basically a timeline for the fictional mythology. And on the DVD-ROM side, you get an interactive map, and excerpts from the comic book and companion book for the film.

The disc also features some generally cool animated menu screens, with clips from the film, along with audio cues and dialogue. They're well done, with a single exception - the special features menu is a disaster. You all know by now, that I'm a big fan of animated menus, but they MUST be easy to navigate. On this page, the various selections are presented in text that flickers and fades in and out constantly, making it hard to read, and impossible to tell what's on the disc at a glance. Yuck.

But these complaints aside, The Blair Witch Project is definitely worth a watch, and there are enough cool extras on this DVD to make it a must for your wishlist. There's just no way that the film could live up to its hype, but this disc does help to give it a little more "oomph". There is already talk of another super special edition DVD version of this film in the works. If this is true, it's kind of irritating that they didn't just take the time to get THIS disc right in the first place. But, I guess I can't complain too much. Just having this film on DVD, less than 4 months after the film premiered in theatres, is kinda cool. Fans will dig this. And anyone who likes spooky flicks should enjoy it too. Just try to set all the hype aside first.

Bill Hunt

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