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Friday, Jan. 7, 2000


Coming soon to a forest near you

"In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Md., while shooting a documentary. A year later, their footage was found."

That's how "The Blair Witch Project" is billed, and really, that's all you need to know if you intend to give it a view. Whether you choose to believe it or not, the terror you see on screen -- as the young film students find themselves hopelessly lost and pursued by God knows what -- is unnervingly real.

The film certainly "looks" real. It's shot entirely on (extremely shaky) handheld video cameras by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, as they pass through Burkittsville and hike deep into its surrounding woods, on their mission to capture the lore and locations connected with the fabled Blair Witch. The trio keep the cameras rolling continuously, even when arguing among themselves or encountering strange phenomena in the dead of night.

The latter is a truly disturbing experience, because we share the filmmakers' disoriented point of view, only able to see the small circle of illumination provided by a camera-mounted light, trapped with their desperation as they angle their cameras madly, trying to glimpse what's out there amid the trees . . .

Further adding to the fright is the fact that Heather and friends are not your typical horror-movie idiot teens ("Gee, what's taking her so long down in the basement?"). In fact, it's hard to remember the last time one saw such typical young Americans on a movie screen, or heard them say something as natural and unscripted as "that is so not cool." Everyone knows people like the characters in this film, and thus it's all too easy to imagine yourself in the same situation as them, and doing exactly the same thing -- which is panic.

About that witch: It's best to take a look at the "Blair Witch" Web site (www.blairwitch.com or www.bwp-jp.com) for more info on the legends surrounding the ancient evil out there in the woods -- the curse of Elly Kedward, the Coffin Rock massacre and serial killer Rustin Parr. The back story contained in the film is quite minimal, which is understandable, seeing as the filmmakers met a nasty fate before they had a chance to assemble their 20 hours of raw footage into a coherent documentary. That task was left to directors Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who have edited the film into shape, and used their Web site to fill in the gaps.

Due to the unprecedented success of a small $35,000 indie feature grossing $140 million and counting, there has been much debate over the reasons for the success of "Blair Witch" and what it portends for the industry, but several things are crystal clear.

First, there's the ever-increasing reality of DIY filmmaking, where any punk with a digital camera, an AVID desktop editing system, plenty of time and enough cash to print the results onto 35 mm film can bootstrap his own vision into being. This is a good thing, but the next hurdle such filmmakers will face is the fact that distribution -- i.e., getting your film booked onto a large amount of screens -- is still dominated by a handful of companies, most of them affiliated with Hollywood studios like Universal or 20th Century Fox.

Indeed, U.S. cinemas were pressured by the majors, with the threat of being denied their Christmas films, unless they moved "Blair Witch" off their screens in a hurry. Obviously, until digital distribution catches up with the digital means of production, the revolution is yet to come.

Having said that, however, "Blair Witch" directors Myrick and Sanchez managed to level the playing field through creative guerrilla tactics. Brian Eno once spoke of artists' work as being either "on canvas" or "off canvas," with "on canvas" meaning the work itself, and "off canvas" referring to the world around the work. Point being that manipulating and playing with the thoughts, assumptions, attitudes and expectations that people bring to the work, can shape how the work is perceived. (By way of example, note how Kubrick's death shaped the response to "Eyes Wide Shut," or how U.S. President Bill Clinton's bombing of Iraq cast "Wag the Dog" in a whole new light.)

"The Blair Witch Project" is an example of "off canvas" work par excellence, which ranged from plastering college campuses with missing-person posters of the three film students, to airing a pseudo-documentary of the entirely spurious "Blair Witch" legend on national TV. They even went so far as to create an entirely convincing police investigation, complete with evidence and an official-looking report, and made this available online. (Makes you stop and think about those crop circles, never mind the Grassy Knoll.)

Finally, the success of "Blair Witch Project" -- and also "The Sixth Sense," for that matter -- is an indication of how fed up audiences are with what has passed for "horror" for the past two decades or so. As horror relied ever more on gore, it became the near-exclusive province of a particularly immature breed of teen boys. ("Like, that nail through the eye looked soooo fake, dude.") The reaction nurtured in the audience was not one of fright (these films were too predictable for that), but an opportunity to display one's jaded indifference to the carnage on screen. Nowhere has this trend become more apparent than with "Scream" and its smirking, self-referential indulgence in stale horror tropes.

What audiences crave is not laughing cruelly at the latest squib effects, but that good old suspension of disbelief, the feeling that there might be something really creepy out there. Not something as explicit and essentially unbelievable as Chucky or the black-cowled ghoul of "Scream," but something.

That's why you can look at a film like "Don't Look Now" decades later and still get the heebeejeebies -- something bad is happening, but you're never quite sure what. "The Blair Witch Project" delivers that uneasy feeling in spades. See it in a theater; video will have you double-locking the doors.

"The Blair Witch Project" is playing at Marunouchi Piccadilly and other theaters.

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