Horror Vérité

The terrifying Blair Witch Project was made with a hand-held camera, three actors, and one brilliant concept

It scares people silly. It makes cool-headed adults wonder if witches are real. It draws hundreds of thousands of hits to its Website. It drives a local historian in small-town Maryland crazy.

The Blair Witch Project, a first film by two canny young Floridians, has developed a reputation as the most frightening movie to come along in many years. With a budget of little more than a new car ("like a Ford or something," suggests one of the filmmakers), the movie began generating several films' worth of anticipation, mythology, and misinformation months before its release. Fangoria magazine, the bible of horror-movie cultists, predicts that it could reinvent the horror genre. Artisan Entertainment, the distributor that bought the film at 5 a.m. after a long night of haggling following a midnight screening at Sundance, plans to position the film as a new kind of indie "event movie."

The film is made up of ostensible found-footage shot by three fictional film students who headed into the woods of north central Maryland to shoot a documentary about a legendary witch whose existence had been rumored about for 200 years. The students, so the story goes, never returned. After looking in vain for the bodies for 33,000 man-hours, the Maryland State Police gave up and called off their search. Almost a year later, a few items the students had taken with them -- including a diary and a few reels of videotape -- were recovered. It is from those tapes that The Blair Witch Project is convincingly and frighteningly pieced. The film we see, so goes the movie's premise, is a rough document -- part videotape, part amateurish 16mm footage, in color and black and white -- of the students' disintegration.

Dan Myrick (left) and Eduardo Sanchez, creators and perpetrators of The Blair Witch Project
Dan Myrick (left) and Eduardo Sanchez, creators and perpetrators of The Blair Witch Project
Dan Myrick (left) and Eduardo Sanchez, creators and perpetrators of The 
Blair Witch Project
Dan Myrick (left) and Eduardo Sanchez, creators and perpetrators of The Blair Witch Project

Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick, who together wrote and directed the movie, got an early sense of the film's persuasiveness when they heard from a private detective in Albany, New York, who asked if he could reopen the case of the missing students. He'd seen a short segment run, War of the Worlds-style, on the Independent Film Channel and figured he could find the students' remains somewhere in Maryland's Black Hill Forest if he had the time to look. Myrick, who took the call, offered an unsympathetic response: "I said, 'Hey man, this is all fiction. Just relax.' "

Myrick and Sanchez seem a little dazed by the attention their film has drawn. Since the movie's purchase at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where Artisan paid a little more than $1 million for worldwide rights, the two novice filmmakers have been busy learning what they call "the scariest part" of this movie -- how to make deals and promote the film. In some ways their lives have improved: They've gone from struggling to pay their utility bills a little more than a year ago to sitting on an American directors panel at Cannes with Spike Lee and John Sayles. In other ways things have gotten hopelessly hectic and complicated for them, and they're exhausted from the photo shoots and interviews and from the pressure of topping a film that hasn't even been widely released yet.

Both 1993 graduates of Orlando's University of Central Florida, the two young men are a study in contrasts. Myrick, age 35, has handsome, chiseled features behind wire-rim glasses and projects a focused intellectual intensity. He's polite but a little closed up. Sanchez, age 30, dresses loosely and carries himself the same way; his dramatic sideburns and dark, unkempt hair make him look like the pale butler from a gothic thriller. Easygoing and guileless, Sanchez has a fondness for phrases like "Go for it, man," which might cause someone, were it still the early '90s, to call him a slacker. Sanchez is also 6-feet-7-inches tall; Myrick calls him, under his breath, "the tallest Cuban in captivity."

What's most interesting about the Blair Witch boys is that they come bearing a fresh idea at a time when the horror genre desperately needs one. Gods and Monsters, the fictionalized biopic of '30s horror director James Whale, and the ensuing revival of the era's films such as The Black Cat and Bride of Frankenstein, served as a reminder that movie audiences, young and old, have always liked being scared. But the horror movies that have been released this decade have been tarted up as teen-slasher films. Ironic and knowing in a wink-wink kind of way, movies like Scream -- full of beautiful TV stars and clever references to other movies -- freshen up the slasher with a smarmy twist of humor. But they don't open up new ground for a genre that's stuck remaking old films and remining the same few ideas.

In the last decade or so, special effects and computer-generated technology have intoxicated filmmakers. From I Still Know What You Did Last Summer to the haunted-house-in-space Event Horizon to The Phantom Menace (a long, frenzied commercial for computer-generated images, or CGI), directors have the idea that audiences want more gore, busier on-screen images, and more elaborate monsters. As the technicians and makeup artists become the movie's driving force, Hollywood -- across the spectrum of horror, action, and science fiction -- is losing its ability to tell a story, sketch characters, or chill us psychologically. Consider the case of The Haunting: In the first adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, director Robert Wise terrified audiences in 1963 with hints of Freudian psychology and an expertly developed claustrophobic mood. By 1999, the new adaptation of the book has become a big-budget ($75 million) special-effects fest, with Stephen Spielberg overseeing Jan De Bont, the director who brought us the thrill rides Speed, Speed 2: Cruise Control, and Twister.

Without convincing stories and characters, these movies aren't frightening; they're just gross. Blair Witch is something different: Simple, raw, and with recognizable characters, it manages to be heart-poundingly scary with no on-screen violence and only one brief moment of gore. And instead of extending the smarmy sexuality that has marked the slasher since scantily clad campgoing teens were killed in Friday the 13th, this movie makes fear -- not retribution against the promiscuous -- its main theme.

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