The Blair Witch Project is amazing solely based on the non-trivial feat the film makers achieve: editing a home-video style piece of film into an involving and suspenseful production.
Three amateur film makers decide to go out into the woods of Burkittsville (formerly "Blair"), Maryland to make a documentary about the "Blair Witch". They get lost and run across a surreal set of events that drive them to near psychosis. The movie is an interesting study on interpersonal relationships, particularly in a frustrating situation. As the situation gets more and more tense, the regular behaviour patterns of the three students begin to deteriorate and they perform uncharacteristic actions that gets them into even more trouble!
As I say above, except for a few spots, the editing is excellent and fast-paced. The acting by three main protagonists, Heather (Heather Donahue), Michael (Michael Williams), and Joshua (Joshua Leonard) is brilliant. The character development is superb: by the end of the film we can easily categorise the personality types seen in the three characters.
I had no idea that this was a completely fictional film, and for a brief while thought this was real footage that had been edited cleverly. But as I began to realise, and later discovered, this is one of those films that blurs the line between what is real and what is artificial in terms of its presentation (à la Orson Welles' War of the Worlds). While I was skeptical, I could've been easily convinced into believing it was real.
Even though I can easily believe it is real, the film isn't really that scary. Perhaps it is because I accept that the horror depicted is a natural part of life (in other words, I never believed there is anything supernatural happening in the film---just a random serial killer or killers). It's easily conceivable that any of us hiking or camping could easily be killed by some serial killer. But I doubt those thoughts really prevent us from being one with nature. The beautiful and stark desolation depicted in the film is what attracts to me nature the most.
After the film, we drove up to the hills of Berkeley to the Mathematical Science Research Institute where it was incredibly foggy and the trees were dripping with moisture and there wasn't a soul around. The perfect atmosphere to reflect back on the film---I recommend it if you're in the Berkeley area. (A week later, I hiked up the Cinder Cone in Lassen Volcanic National Park in a setting that was spookier than the one shown in the woods in the film.)
The Blair Witch Project had an impact on me primarily because I walked into it thinking it was a real documentary (my impressions were changed shortly after the film started). And even though the sequel Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows opens with a statement asserting its reality, it is more of a straight-forward, albeit interesting, horror film that stands and falls on its own merits.
Four tourists, along with their tour guide, decide to explore the legend of the Blair Witch, made popular by the release of the The Blair Witch Project film. Their motivations are diverse: Erica Leerhsen is a Wiccan who is interested in showing to the world that not all witches are bad; Stephen Turner and Tristen Skylar are a couple who are writing a book exploring the line dividing sanity and hysteria; Kim Director is a goth who is there because she thought that the original film was cool; and Jeff Donovan is the tour guide who has been under intensive mental therapy. A recipe for disaster.
After spending a night there, they're accused of having murdered a group of tourists (in the same style as the serial killer from the original film). The resulting footage they've taken (the only thing that survives intact) is slowly shown to us revealing the true identity of the killer.
It's not clear at the end of the film which of the five were in on the killings and/or were allegedly possessed by the witch, but that's part of the nature of this kind of a film. Once again, the film illustrates the nature of paranoid behaviour and how the lines between reality and fantasy can be blurred. At times, the atmosphere created is disturbing and effective. The shaky camera work in the original film bothered me a lot, and as a whole, this film is better made and uses minimal special effects to achieve the eerie feel it projects. The industrial-rich sound track has its moments, but the music is a bit too mainstream. The acting is decent though there are some awkward moments both in terms of facial expressions and in terms of the dialogue.
What is surprising is the choice of Joe Berlinger to direct this film. Berlinger, who made the Paradise Lost documentaries that have been instrumental in focusing efforts on freeing three kids apparently innocently accused of murder, does a great job but his decision to make the film is highly incongruous. One way Berlinger's choice can be justified is by concluding that this film was purely a business proposition. If there was some other motive behind him doing this vaguely-related film that has to do with the three accused, I sure would like to hear about it. Perhaps the one (facetious?) comment made about the effect of the original film on the alleged killers is some indication.
There is supposed to be another sequel, but I'd not be too optimistic about any answers since it's really a "prequel". Comparisons between this film and the first are really moot, because the setting is completely different (the entire film could be viewed as commentary on what happens when fictional films like The Blair Witch Project are released). Blair Witch 2 is definitely worth checking out on the big screen if you're a fan of supernatural horror films.