The plot is simple: three student filmakers on the hunt in the woods of Maryland for a legendary evil that may or may not have murdered seven children and five men in the 1940s. They are lost. Their footage – the film – is found.
The introduction – as the filmmakers meet and speak with the townsfolk to unearth the mystery – is clever and utilitarian. The snippets of information given during these mostly humorous encounters are valuable, and the interviews are indistinguishable from any conversation you might have with a resident of a small Maryland town.
Obviously, the trio move from the town to the woods, in search of the sites of the murders. Make no mistake. It is horrifying. And not in the Kevin Williamson, tongue-in-cheek, stylish and ironic sense. It is not violent, nor gross, but bare-bones and primal. They are lost. They begin to break down. Something is tracking them. Your vantage point is their clumsy vantage point, through the eyes of a film and a video camera.
The reviews of the film state that the actors were given minimal training with film and video cameras, and then they were let loose to act spontaneously along the lines of the plot. This may or may not be true, but either way, all three convey realism, and the camera-work (well edited) intensifies the terror.
I also thought about this film more than I expected to. One scene in particular, where the female filmmaker films an apology to her parents and the mothers of her two companions – runs your blood cold. It stuck with me, because the actress seemed so bare and so alone.
Finally, the ending scene is one of the most gripping I’ve ever seen and better, through quick visuals (in a dark melee) much is revealed that stitches The Blair Witch Project together, proving it not only creepy, but accomplished.
Two personal anecdotes. Some folks may feel the film stagey because the filmmakers shoot their personal interactions, which obviously helps the plot. I participated in student films in college, and everything, including banter, tends to get filmed because video costs nothing, the film allotment is free or subject to a huge reduction, college students making films are hopeless hams, and everyone wants to laugh at “The Making of . . . . ”
Second, I went to summer camp as a child in Southern Maryland off the Wicomico River. Legends abound of witchcraft, strange worship, murder, and the like, in the woods off the camp (a common occurrence stoked by the purveyors of camp lore). That said, you hike too far in any woods an hour outside of Washington, D.C., you can get real lost, real fast.
This film is not for everyone. Some folks behind me in the theater were exasperated by the hand-held camera (which can make you queasy) and loudly complained, ‘What was the big deal?” My guess, and it is only a guess, is that they heard the buzz, thought to see the work of young auteurs, and had no idea they were walking into a stripped-down, cleverly realized supernatural Deliverance.