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Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Witch?

The Blair Witch Project revives old fashioned terror

The fear that can strike while you're descending the stairs to the basement (you're alone at home) at night (and the light bulb's burned out) is a terror more terrifying than Freddy Kreuger or Jack Torrance or anyone in a goalie's mask or fisherman's hat. It wells up out of nowhere -- you don't have to hear an unexpected sound or see a shadowy figure lurking in the corner -- and is pervasive, unshakable. Once the fear enters you, it's very difficult to use reason or history to convince yourself that there's no one there, that nothing is going to hurt you. Our imagination can do things to us that Mr. Nicholson, frightening as he tries to be, just can't. It is this brand of fear that's evoked in the much-buzzed summer release The Blair Witch Project.

The thrills provided by more typical horror film fare these days rely on different kinds of fear -- on the apparently-dead killer coming suddenly and menacingly back to life, on blood and guts... in short, on the knowledge that there is most definitely something lurking under the basement steps. It's there, and the scary part is finding out how and when and who it gets. Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, the masterminds behind the Blair Witch, worked disquieting wonders on a shoestring budget by reacting against these tactics.
The movie adheres by necessity to a studied minimalism in costuming, set design, actors, and production values. All of which fits neatly into the concept of the film and the story told therein: three documentary film students (Heather, Josh and Mike, played, respectively, by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams) embark on a school project to investigate the mythology surrounding a witch. Purportedly, the witch has been haunting the quiet county of Blair, Maryland for the past 200 years. The young students of film prepare for the trip, buy supplies, interview a handful of locals about their experience with the Blair Witch myth, and, finally, hike off into the woods in which the witch's various atrocities are said to have been committed. And then they disappear. Much later, after the search for their bodies has ended, their footage is found and the movie The Blair Witch Project, as released this summer by Artisan Entertainment, is supposedly this footage.

Myrick and Sanchez constructed the movie around a somewhat obsessive quest for a real effect, and as a result, it is truly the three actors who film the movie. And they do, in fact, spend several days out in the woods, getting genuinely hungry and genuinely scared because at the start of filming, the movie was largely unscripted. The actors were given daily updates outlining broadly where to go and how to proceed, but the manifestations of the "witch" -- sounds of children wailing in the night, little stick figures hanging from trees, eerie little piles of stones -- caused much the same heartquakes in the actors during the filming as they do in the audience during the viewing.

This is, without a doubt, a very scary movie. But the sense of terror and dread here depends heavily on the willingness of the moviegoer to submit to the fear. Nothing jumps out from behind a corner, there are no shower stall attacks; we're never even made to feel sure of what sort of villain we're dealing with. Mostly, we watch the three main characters get progressively anxious and alarmed over the course of the movie. The less patient among us may cry foul, arguing that the last thing a horror flick should be is boring. But for those of us more than willing to give our eyes, ears, and imaginations to Mr. Myrick and Mr. Sanchez for a mere hour and a half will not emerge from the theater the same.

The Blair Witch Project
rated R
1 hour 27 minutes

Heather Donahue
Michael Williams
Joshua Leonard