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The Blair Witch

Films and books reviewed with a discerning eye.

Spotlight on: The Blair Witch

The Blair Witch Project
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

The Witch's Daughter (The Blair Witch Files #1)
The Dark Room (The Blair Witch Files #2)
The Drowning Ghost (The Blair Witch Files #3)
The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier
Blair Witch: Book of Shadows
Blair Witch: The Secret Confession of Rustin Parr

To arrange to have products considered for review, send an email to craigsbookclub@yahoo.com.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) and
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2001)

Originally published in somewhat different form by The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003, reprinted by permission.

In 1994, local Montgomery College film students Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams came to Burkittsville, MD, to make the definitive documentary on the legend of the Blair Witch. They set out into the forest with several cans of film, primitive camping equipment, and very little patience for each other. They were never seen again. A year later, some anthropology students found a duffel bag filled with the lost students' equipment buried under the foundation of a century-old cabin in the woods.

The Blair Witch Project is a scare-fest from the old school. There are none of the nausea-inducing ingredients of the slasher genre (except perhaps for the handheld camera work, which left many viewers motion-sick); everything is suggested. Also at play here is the immortal fear of the dark and the unknown. Other than being irretrievably lost, nothing eventful happens to Heather, Josh, and Mike...in the daytime.

It is the night that brings out the terrors. The three hear strange noises--like the far-off laughter of a child--and wake up to strange stick figures and rock piles having been placed just outside their tent while they were asleep.

The tension increases steadily, with the three constantly blaming each other for being lost, until one morning... Josh is gone. While looking for him, they come upon an old house in the woods. In their search, Heather and Mike are separated, which leads up to the eeriest ending on film.

The story of the witch is barely explained, and she never appears at all (detailed backstory is available at the website). We are given just enough information to follow the film's story and be absolutely freaked out at the right moments. The natural acting of the leads is what really carries us. These people look and act terrified in a way that feels real. As annoying as they may be, sometimes, I feared for them.

As a horror film, The Blair Witch Project reaches heights of terror that can only be achieved on a low-budget, where the imagination has to be used because the filmmakers can't afford to show anything. This film taps into childhood fears--like a campfire story--fears we may think we've outgrown, but that merely were no longer being tested.

Its sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, first of all, plays its cards right by not even attempting to repeat the success of the original. A repeat of the original--while expected--could not have come close. Therefore, on its release, it met with ferociously mixed reviews simply because it was not what was expected--a soulless retread of the beloved original. What we got instead was a multi-layered film that comments on society in the guise of a horror film.

Five people, all fans or students of the phenomenon that is The Blair Witch Project, meet on a Blair Witch Tour of Burkittsville to see the town's sights made famous by the first film. These are Jeff, the tour guide, who we find out has just been released from an institution; Kim, the goth chick cynic; Erica, the sweet-natured Wiccan out to clear the witch's name; and Stephen and Tristen, a couple who are writing a book on the subject.

The entirety of Book of Shadows' plot lies in its commentary on the phenomenon that accompanied The Blair Witch Project's initial release. These characters are all obsessed with the mythology of the film. Though they know it is fiction, they react to it as reality, one of them even going so far as to set up a Blair Witch Tour of the locations used in the film--specifically the remains of Rustin Parr's cabin in the woods, where the important action of the film takes place. Signing up for this tour is how they all meet.

As part of the tour, Jeff takes them--complete with film equipment--out to the cabin--or what's left of it--where they meet up with another tour group. There is some argument as to who is going to sleep at the cabin, but "our" group wins and proceed to have one of the biggest drug and drink benders five total strangers can have with each other. Come morning, they wake up to find they don't remember much of what happened and the equipment is missing. They first suspect the other tourists, but when Kim finds it hidden under a pile of rocks, they decide the only way to find out the truth is to go to Jeff's place (an abandoned broom factory) and watch the video.

The rest of the film consists of their watching and rewatching the video, and finding out things they didn't want to know. During the viewing, snippets of footage (or is it memory?) find their way onto the video, and since we see the events from the characters' points of view, it is left up to us to decide whether what we are seeing is real or the product of a shared delusion. The acting is solid, and the discoveries are made in a well-done manner. Very scary and surreal. Even the discovery of who was in charge was done slowly and subtly. I was surprised by every twist and turn and the director should be commended for making what could have been a simple slice-and-dice into a thought-provoking, well-written, scary film.

As with the first film, the characters have the same first names as the actors but, in this one, they have different last names, giving the film a sense of not-quite reality. Also contributing to this surreal experience are several "ghost images' that appear throughout the film, but are deliberately not brought to our attention. (The DVD, however, offers visual tricks and obscure hints to their meaning. Door. Rug. Grave. Mirror. Water.) One realizes at the end that the entire film is a commentary on the first one and the public's response to it. This commentary is multi-layered and includes the last line spoken.

Book of Shadows is not a scare-fest, but it is a creep-fest. The atmosphere from the beginning is one of uncertainty, one that takes us on a journey that we're sure is not going to turn out right. But its subtleties--especially those ghost images!--are almost overwhelming. Visually, there's too much going on for us to be able to concentrate on the storyline and its resolution. But that simply makes for a feeling of unease, which fits here perfectly.

Cade Merrill, The Witch's Daughter (The Blair Witch Files #1)

Originally published in somewhat different form by Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

The first book in The Blair Witch Files, The Witch's Daughter, is marginally better than its successor, The Dark Room (reviewed below), and it's still a fast-paced, interesting, and quick read. When Justin Petit writes to Cade Merrill about his ailing grandfather Harper Kemp's belief that a young woman from his past is trying to kill him (because he believes she has already killed others who wronged her), Cade doesn't know what to believe.

He takes on the investigation, but said "investigation" involves simply telling Justin's story in narrative form. No solutions are offered and the ending is highly unsatisfying as it leaves the story up in the air with a kind of "that's when I knew that the story wasn't over" kind of cliffhanger that is not carried over into the second book.

However, since I find the whole Blair Witch mythology immensely intriguing, since I've been able to pick these books up for near to nothing, and since it's especially rare that I find a book I can finish in just over an hour (something I've begun to really appreciate about this series), I can guarantee I will continue to pursue these as far as I can.

Cade Merrill, The Dark Room (The Blair Witch Files #2)

Originally published in somewhat different form by Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

A series of books for younger readers, The Blair Witch Files was begun soon before the release of the second film back during the time that R-rated movies were still marketed to teenagers. Author "Cade Merrill" (presumably D.A. Stern, though I have no evidence) purports to be Heather's cousin who is collecting information, X-Files-style, in order to understand what happened to his cousin in the forest of the Black Hills in Burkittsville, Maryland. People write him through his website and he meets with them and later tells their story in these books.

The only one I've read so far at this writing is called The Dark Room, the second in the series. (I found it on the bookshelf in a dollar store as they are now out of print.) Cade receives an e-mail from a girl who wants to come down and take photographs of the ruins of Rustin Parr's house (the site of the first film's climax). Once there, she begins frantically taking pictures of the site and saying things like "don't you see it?" though Cade only sees the same ruins that have been there since the house burned down in the 1940s. It is only when the pictures are developed that he realizes that she has seen something spectacular.

The Dark Room was a very quick read (I finished it in two hours) and was written with the skill of one who knows narrative pacing. The story continually offers surprises and discoveries that keep the reader turning pages to find out what is going on, and it is in that way quite similar to the Three Investigators series. The ending was mildly unsatisfying, but this is because the book is one in a series and can't really "end," so to speak. However, I definitely will be seeking other entries in the series to add to my continually growing collection of Blair Witch books.

Cade Merrill, The Drowning Ghost (The Blair Witch Files #3)

Originally published in somewhat different form by Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

According to the Blair Witch lore, 175 years ago a young girl named Eileen Treacle was drowned in the two-foot-deep Tappy East Creek when she was held down by a mysterious bony hand, purported to belong to Elly Kedward, the Blair Witch who was banished and left for dead forty years prior.

Now Cecilia Northrupp has contacted Cade Merrill with her story of a school-related camping trip, located in the area of Tappy East Creek, and how the ghost of a little girl ended up turning what was supposed to be a test of survival into a bloodbath by continually luring many of the thirty seventh-graders out to "play" because she was lonely.

The Drowning Ghost is the third in the series. I love these Blair Witch Files books, and this is my favorite of the three I've read so far. It's surprisingly well-plotted with engaging characters and truly suspenseful situations. I zoomed through the 175 pages in just over an hour and was riveted to the story the entire time.

I've recently discovered that each of these books was "ghostwritten" by a different author. The author of this one (Natalie Standiford) has a lot of experience with series for younger readers and The Drowning Ghost shows that she knows how to keep the reader involved. Something new is happening on every page, and a surprise revelation appears at the end of nearly every chapter, sure to keep the pages turning.

D.A. Stern, The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier
D.A. Stern, Blair Witch: Book of Shadows
D.A. Stern, Blair Witch: The Secret Confession of Rustin Parr

Originally published in somewhat different form by Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

I love the whole idea behind the Blair Witch mythology. I own the two (so far) films on DVD and still watch them excitedly, looking for more details involving the intricate backstory devised by The Blair Witch Project directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez.

But what makes my enjoyment more thorough are the books that have come from this phenomenon. The mythology is so dense that many tangents can be broken off from it and there have been at least a dozen book offshoots from this center.

The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier is a companion to the first film. Author D.A. Stern presents a collection of transcribed interviews and clippings along with the entirety of Heather Donahue's journal to give an indepth appreciation to the film. Reading the book reveals details about the movie previously imperceptible from just viewing it, like how these three met and gathered together for this project and what other townsfolk think about the Blair Witch and her alleged doings.

The inevitable sequel to The Blair Witch Project came with its own accompanying tome simply named after the film, Blair Witch: Book of Shadows. Stern returns with another selection of clippings (this time from various tabloid sources), e-mails, and interviews that cover everything from the application process for joining the "Blair Witch Hunt" tour to character Jeff's history in a mental institution. A good amount of space is devoted to each character and their reasons for joining the tour, as well as past events that could or would have led to the final events of the film.

Both these books are riveting reading for fans of the films and are especially recommended for those interested in getting more from their viewing experience than two hours of film can offer. Other books cover more areas of the mythology in more tangential detail, like The Secret Confession of Rustin Parr, which concerns a priest who accompanied convicted child murderer Parr (who said he was led to the killings by suspected Blair Witch Elly Kedward) during the last days before his execution.

Stern has written this book as a novel and it is quite the gripping read as Stern takes his time divvying up the so-called "secret confessions" one by one until the final blow at the end. The reader is led through these by priest Dominick Cazale, an engaging character in his own right who, after forty years, is finally able to reveal what has been torturing him for most of his life.

All of these books add in some way to the backstory of the Blair Witch and I was glad to have read them. I know that I will continue to look for more books to add to my continually-growing Blair Witch collection.