The Blair Witch Project, the bone-chilling indie by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, is easily the scariest horror picture of the '90s, a movie that can take a place among the most potent of modern shockers, like Night of the Living Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Three film students (Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard) venture into the woods of north-central Maryland to shoot a documentary about a legendary witch. They disappear, but a year later the film and video they shot are discovered; the premise of the film is that we're seeing this footage.
What we see couldn't be much simpler. Exposition is dispensed with through some talking-head interviews with townies in the nearby village of Burkittsville, through which we learn of the belief that the forest is haunted by a witch from the 1700s and that it has been the site of child murders and other grisly business ever since. Undaunted, the trio heads blithely into the woods on their camping trip/movie shoot.
They find and film little piles of rocks and pagan-looking human effigies hanging from the trees. They hear creepy sounds outside the tent at night. By the third day, the guys are on the verge of panic, but the woman, the director of the project, remains breezily unconcerned, even after it becomes clear that they're lost. From there, the excursion grows less and less agreeable.
The Cowardly Lion had the right idea. Entering a haunted forest in search of a witch, he kept repeating, "I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do." He seemed to instinctively understand that, at least in the movies, believing in the supernatural is the best defense against its nasty surprises.
"It's very difficult to get lost in America," Heather assures her companions. This misconception that the country has been tamed, that there's sure to be a 7-Eleven or a McDonald's just over the next ridge gets quite a workout in The Blair Witch Project. The subtext is how much modern rationalism has to do with the sense of security that we get from social and technological comforts, and how quickly rationalism can desert us when they're taken away.
The surprise is that, within its narrow presentational conceit, the film manages some real emotional depth and subtlety and some trenchant observations on the humbling power of nature and, maybe, of supernature. The director continues, much to her colleagues' fury, to obsessively videotape their adventure, in spite of their dire situation. But when one of the guys picks up the camera and shoots a few scenes, he says, "I see why you like this camera so much because it's not quite reality."
Later they berate her because, even at their most desperate, "She's still makin' movies." "It's all I have left," she blurts. Whether this was scripted or just an inspired ad-lib, it's this idea that makes The Blair Witch Project credible the footage is shot because the characters cling to their cameras like technological security blankets.
The Blair Witch Project manifests very little of its effect through visual ghastliness. Almost all of the terror is achieved through sound, through the dread-soaked atmosphere of the October woods and through the utterly convincing reactions of the actors. As such, the film is a reproach to the notion that in this era of gore, it's no longer possible to scare an audience with suspense and suggestion.
The two most noted horror pictures of the decade so far, Scream and its superior sequel, Scream 2, were both entertaining enough. But when a genre reaches the point where it's alternating routine slasher shocks with jaded jokes about the hokeyness of the form to which it's adhering, that genre is crying out to be reinvented.
Myrick and Sanchez heard the cry. Like George Romero and Tobe Hooper, they took their cameras into the woods and, unaided by prosthetic effects or campy in-jokes, figured out a new way to scare the bejesus out of us. Their technique is one that has rarely been attempted in the horror field: naturalistic verisimilitude. It's clear that the actors, who shot the film themselves while improvising the dialogue along a scenario planned by the directors, were immersed in the situation to the point that their terrified reactions can't even properly be called acting.
The result of this method is so believable that the audience is put in something like the same position it's only by context that we know we aren't looking at real document. Nothing about The Blair Witch Project allows us to say, "It's only a movie," apart from our knowledge that it's only a movie.
And some audience members may even be unwilling to credit this knowledge. After the screening, I heard a young man ask the publicist, "So, is this real?" One of his companions pointed out, "No, didn't you see, it had that "All characters and events are fictitious' thing in the credits."
"Yeah," he said. "But don't they have to put that on, for legal reasons?"
I loved this gullible viewer's yearning to believe in the veracity of what he had just seen, terrifying though it was his yearning for something beyond rationalism to believe in; for a less mundane, more magical world; for an American forest in which it's still possible to get cosmically lost. The Cowardly Lion had the right idea, and so did this guy.
Opens July 30 at the Tivoli.