THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

Written and directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick

With Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams

Distributed by Artisan Entertainment

****


Artisan Entertainment has done such a good job marketing THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT that it appears to have become a cult classic on its first day of release. Not only was the 2:15 Wednesday screening I attended sold-out, tickets for all of the evening shows were already gone by 2:00. A guy sitting in the row behind me mentioned driving an hour to see it. With this kind of buzz - and numerous reviews billing it as "the scariest horror movie since {pick your favorite}" - a backlash is probably inevitable, but in this case, the Sundance-spawned euphoria is justifiable. The auxiliary web sites and cable TV special, which expand upon the film's iconography and mythology, might even have a point beyond salesmanship: Myrick and Sanchez have created a forest for the spectator, not just the characters, to get lost in.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT purports to be an edited version of footage shot by 3 student filmmakers just before their 1994 disappearance. Director/videographer Heather (Heather Donahue) gathers together 16mm cameraman Josh (Joshua Leonard) and soundman Mike (Michael Williams) to assist her with a documentary on the Blair Witch, who supposedly haunts a forest in Burkettsville, Maryland. Every shot in the film is taken from the point of view of Josh, Mike or Heather and was genuinely shot by the actors, who probably deserve to be credited as co-directors. They begin in high spirits, interviewing locals about the legend of the Witch and meeting an eccentric woman who claims to have had a personal encounter with her, and set off into the woods for a weekend in order to film Coffin Rock, the supposed site of the Witch's atrocities, and the cemetery where the infant victims she killed during a spree in the 1940s are buried. However, they become lost on their very first day of shooting, and quickly become desperately confused, especially once they start hearing mysterious noises around their tent at night.

Myrick and Sanchez have clearly learned a lot about the suggestive possibilities of off-screen space and sound design from Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's B-movie classics. This restraint may have stemmed partially from economic concerns - on a 5-figure budget, it's easier to show someone screaming in total darkness than build a monster - but the directors have magnificently turned these limitations to their advantage. In fact, they use sound so well that I found walking out of the crowded theater - to the tune of a minimalist, sepulchral score that runs over the end credits - as scary as anything I'd just seen. If it wasn't so well-crafted, the film would amount to little more than the gimmick some have accused it of being, but both the editing and highly convincing performances lend a great deal of force to its high concept.

Heather documents every point of their journey with her video camera, reserving the black & white 16mm format for "important" things like Coffin Rock. The act of making a film about the Witch may be a modern-day skeptic's attempt to claim power over her, but Heather also treats her camera as a talisman. Indeed, her determination to keep shooting at all costs, even when it irritates Josh and Mike, seems like a ritual designed to keep the wolf at bay. When Mike looks through it, he suddenly understands how it distances one from the real world.Long before the Witch's threat becomes real, the mundane horrors of hunger and exhaustion afflicting the filmmakers are disturbing enough. Only at night does anything dangerous happen; during the day, they only have hints of her presence and their own fraying nerves and bodies to grapple with. The Witch's powerful magic is strictly low-tech: her (literal) sticks and stones don't break anybody's bones but certainly fuck with their heads. As far as Myrick and Sanchez's style is from Sam Raimi's, she's nevertheless a presence akin to the tree that rapes a woman in THE EVIL DEAD.

Needless to say, the camera's power is illusory. (As obsessed as Michael Haneke is with the negative consequences of video technology, I doubt he could ever address them as subtly as Myrick and Sanchez.) THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT eventually becomes a chronicle of a disappearance: a film about people gradually losing their point of view. The camerawork gradually becomes more and more frantic and distorted. Deprived of context and soundtrack, much of the last 30 minutes could pass for an abstract avant-garde film. The film's extensive use of the video format is justified by its brilliant exploitation of the medium's implications of intimacy, especially when Heather delivers a tearful apology for her hubris directly into the camera. (The film's first trailer, which consisted entirely of an excerpt of this scene, was itself one of the best films I've seen this year.) Its finale is all the more terrifying because Heather and Mike's point of view fragments wildly once they're finally placed in direct physical danger. Even though all the violence takes place off-screen, they're still filming death at work.

As much fun as the SCREAM movies are, their influence on Hollywood has been terrible. Rather than encouraging studios to produce such serious visions of horror as ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and George Romero's Dead trilogy, they've only encouraged them to crank out junk for teenagers to laugh at. The grindhouse circuit that helped support this work no longer exists, while straight-to-video releases have pretty much taken over the market formerly reserved for the B-movie. In substance, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT marks its welcome return. I miss the good ol' days when low-budget "independent"/ "cult" movies didn't need an instant tidal wave of promotion to find their audience, but I can't sneer too much at Artisan's efforts: it's refreshing to see a Miramax-caliber knack for marketing finally set behind a genuinely special film. Once in a while, we can believe the hype.