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Into the Woods

[whitespace] 'The Blair Witch Project'
Eyes Wide Open: Heather Donahue wishes she'd stayed home in 'The Blair Witch Project.'

Forget the irony and slapstick of modern horror films--'The Blair Witch Project' taps into deeper ancestral fears

By Richard von Busack

JUST BEFORE his death, National Public Radio interviewed the poet and novelist James Dickey. Dickey was asked about the one moment in his work that everyone's remembers, the scene in Deliverance in which the actors "Cowboy" Coward and Billy McKinney sexually assault the campers played by Ned Beatty and Jon Voigt. Dickey said that the scene had its indelible quality because it summed up "the principal fear of the 20th century--the fear of being attacked by a group of strangers."

But the woods are at least half of the horror in Deliverance. Nature is responsible for the casualties: the guitar player found with his arm twisted back, knocked dead by the river's rapids; the rocks that make hamburger out of Burt Reynolds' legs.

Two young Florida filmmakers have come up with the worst camping trip since Deliverance. Title cards at the beginning of Daniel Mynick and Eduardo Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project tell us that this is a found film. In 1994, a confident young film student named Heather (played by Heather Donahue) and her two assistants went off into the Maryland backwoods at Halloween. Heather and her fellow students (Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard) were working on a student documentary about a witch legend that dates back to the 1780s.

Unlike most horror-film peasants issuing Lugosian warnings, the friendly locals of the small town of Blair had little information about the witch. The one woman who said she actually saw a creature in the woods was half-crazy.

Once in the woods, the three became badly lost. At night, the woods were full of noises and disruption; then several days into the trip, they stumbled into a part of the forest where someone had been bundling sticks into the forms of men, hanging them on the trees like ornaments. Heather, Michael and Joshua's equipment was found a couple of years later: some 16mm film and 8mm tape. These remnants are reproduced in The Blair Witch Project.

Directors Myric and Sanchez met at Central Florida University, where both were enrolled in the inaugural class at the film school. "It was an experiment. We were guinea pigs," Mynick says. "What the university had done was expand their television department." The advantage of the small school was that each student had access to the filmmaking equipment.

After graduation, Sanchez and Myrick joined with producers Greg Hale, Rob Cowie and Mike Monello to form Haxan films. The name comes from the Swedish word for "witch"; Haxan was also the original title for a cult film of sorts: the 1922 documentary by Benjamin Christianssen released here under the title Witchcraft Throughout the Ages. (William Burroughs narrated a 1966 edition of the film, which starred Christianssen as a tall, hairy and huge-eared Satan.) Haxan purports to be a documentary examining the witch trials of the Middle Ages.

WHEN I ASK Myrick what his favorite horror films are, he mentions some of the usual, such as The Exorcist and The Shining. But he also brings up the pseudo-documentaries that Sunn International Films distributed in 1969 and afterward, especially Chariot of the Gods.

The Blair Witch Project has no narration except what's addressed to the cameras. Rarely has there been so little to tip off viewers that they are really watching a "mocumentary."

"From the beginning," Myrick explains, "the whole idea of the film was to preserve realism, so we never wanted to show the monster or sell out with some gore scene."

"The thing was," Sanchez adds, "is that we didn't have the money to do anything spectacular. We had gone back and forth about showing the monster at the end. We'd discussed all kinds of different things: a shadow, a hairy leg or an arm, or something, in the corner where you don't notice it. We wanted an ambiguous mysterious kind of ending, because it wasn't compromising the rest of the film."

The film's credibility comes from its lack of comedy. Sanchez and Myrick were fighting the conventions of the modern-day horror film, with its slapstick and irony and boy-meets-girl quotient. "We originally had a romance," Sanchez says. "Joshua and Heather were supposed to get together. But both of them came up close at separate times to ask us, 'Hey, about this romance ...' It didn't work out."

In real life, Sanchez adds, "they were both involved with other people. And there they were with this improv situation, out there in the woods together all the time, 24 hours, going to the bathroom out there. The last thing you feel like doing is making out. I don't know how they felt about each other. I think it would have been more distracting if we'd forced them to do something. Because what we were trying to do was have a controlled documentary, and a documentary is supposed to be raw material, cut together."

Mynick and Sanchez outlined the scenes day by day, giving the three-member cast the idea of what the occurrences would be. "Basically it was a script without the dialogue," Mynick says. And the cast had no idea what would happen when nightfall descended.

"We'd sneak up on them at 2 in the morning," Sanchez explains, "and start running around the tent. They'd come out with the cameras, and we tried not to be seen--me and Eduardo played the Blair Witch, really. The house of the finale is right behind an abandoned Nike missile base in Patasco State Park in Maryland. We shored up the steps and erased the graffiti, but basically what you see is how we found it."

THE FILM IS DONE in the video-confessional form popularized in MTV's The Real World. These confessionals have rapidly become a bad cliché, the true mark of the underreaching director. But Mynick and Sanchez redeem the device, especially because the confessional format works when a character is in peril.

The scene of Heather's last communiqué to the world--originally 13 minutes long--is excerpted in the previews. She's distraught, sobbing--her pupils are dilated from the light and in the corner of the frame. An improv like this is only as good as the improviser. Donahoe's acting is so powerful that previews with this scene have given the film even more cachet than its popularity at the Sundance Film Festival.

Even more exciting than Donohoe's performance is the intelligent use of
Super-8. Every new use of the Hi-8 camera is a step away from the domination of mega-buck filmmaking. The less a movie costs, the less it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Few recording technologies cost less than Hi-8.

Money aside, Mynick and Sanchez put the limitations of Hi-8 to work for them. The camera's lousy depth of field and flatness of image make us a little more afraid of the dark. Like a camper wakened in his sleeping bag by the snapping of a branch, the viewer of The Blair Witch Project stares into the dark, hackles up, trying to discern whatever is lurking out there.

The Blair Witch Project subtracts the jokiness from modern horror and goes back to the almost ancestral memories of uneasy nights in the woods. The malevolence of the forest weakens the campers, turning them against each other and making them prey for the beast.

It's thought that fairy tales warning about witches and sweet-talking wolves originated because mothers knew that their children weren't old enough to be told that there were such real dangers as rapists and murderers. Thus this movie channels a very old source of horror: it's a trip straight to the Gingerbread House.

'The Blair Witch Project' (R; 82 min.), directed and written by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, photographed by Neal Fredericks and starring Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose and the Palo Alto Square

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From the July 15-21, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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