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 and inexorable 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 is discovered; the premise of Blair Witch 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 whom 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 off into the woods on their camping trip/movie shoot.
They find and film little piles of rocks on the ground 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, who's the director of the project, remains chipper and breezily unconcerned, even after it finally becomes clear that they're lost in the woods. From there, the excursion quickly grows less and less agreeable.
The Cowardly Lion had the right idea. Entering a haunted forest in search of a witch, the noble beast 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. "Spooks" tend to get offended when you don't believe in them, especially when you're on their turf.
"It's very difficult to get lost in America," Heather assures her companions, trying to buck them up. 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 pretty trenchant observations on the humbling power of nature and, maybe, of supernature. The director continues, much to the fury of her colleagues, to obsessively videotape their adventure, in spite of the dire situation they're in. 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 out. 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 -- which, except for a dead mouse, seem to be free of animals and birds -- and through the utterly convincing reactions of the actors. 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 at which it's alternating routine slasher shocks with jaded jokes about the hokiness 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 simply 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 preplanned 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 a 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. It wouldn't surprise me at all if The Blair Witch Project became the subject of its own urban legend. Leaving the theater after the screening I attended, 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.