They Know What You Watched Last Summer
The co-directors of The Most Terrifying Movie of the Decade are enjoying a giggle at their interviewer's expense. This is because I have just admitted to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who are talking up The Blair Witch Project by phone from Maryland, that I unwittingly perpetuated their faux documentary's spirited hoax two years ago, writing in an A List blurb that "the horrifying footage of three missing filmmakers" was being "unearthed and unspooled" on an episode of John Pierson's Split Screen cable series. The truth is that Pierson--who had initially been duped by the "found" footage himself--ran portions of the pair's pseudo-supernatural "investor tape" to help them scare up financing for Blair Witch, their proposed work of fiction about a documentary film crew's wilderness nightmare. "That [early] tape was mainly designed to catch the interest of dentists and other potential investors," says Myrick. "The idea was to say, 'Okay, so you believed that was real? Well, we're raising money to make a feature that'll be just as scary.'"
The strategy worked and then some: The Split Screen segment, in which the fictional filmmakers stumble upon some menacing stick figures hung from trees in the woods of Maryland (a shiver-inducing scene that's repeated in the feature), not only enabled Myrick and Sanchez to scrounge up a $30,000 budget but sparked a debate over the clip's authenticity on Pierson's Web site. (The renowned indie-film advocate and Split Screen host is duly credited in the movie as "Phase One Instigator.") This led in turn to a cult-level buzz in January at Sundance, where The Blair Witch Project sold to Artisan Entertainment for a reported $1.5 million--in addition to fooling some more viewers. "We don't apologize for it," says Sanchez of the film's tricky conceit, acknowledging that he has encountered a few pissed-off festival attendees who believed the movie was real until the end credits. "The thing is that the film is meant to scare you."
All this might merit a mere footnote to the clichéd horror of indie survivalism were the movie itself not so ingeniously conceived and executed. The finished Project, ostensibly completed by a rather brilliant editor, appears at once authentic, ambiguous, and genuinely disturbing, as the filmmaking characters' handheld Hi-8 and 16mm cameras swirl vertiginously around the same unsparing patch of wilderness and eventually happen upon a remote and run-down cabin--the classic nightmare scenario. The Blair Witch Project's violently elliptical editing--dictated, naturally, by the harrowing circumstances--brings the viewer back again and again to sudden darkness and the threat of horrible death, as the starving and sleep-deprived protagonists (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams) sit in their tent hearing faint cackles, howls, and what sounds like the cracking whip from hell, until daylight brings another bad, bloody omen.
Unlike their panic-stricken characters, Sanchez and Myrick were intrepid in crafting their nightmare: The economy of the production, the effectiveness of the first-person style, and the elaborately detailed Blair Witch "mythology" disseminated on the film's Web site would be enough to qualify theirs as a landmark work of bare-bones horror. But even more remarkable is the fact that the movie was shot improv-style by its own actors within a context of consensual harassment. "We really just ran around their tent was all," says the 30-year-old Sanchez in a deadpan understatement of his and Myrick's Method madness. The pair, who met as film students a few years ago at the University of Central Florida, put their intrepid actors through a two-day crash course in cinematography before sending them out to the Maryland woods with instructions to document whatever phantom menace came their way. Food, warmth, and sleep were kept in short supply so as to help facilitate the realistic performances. "The actors were well aware that they were participating in a fictional documentary, and they were up for it," says Myrick, who's 35. "At first we had to prove to them that we weren't setting up some kind of snuff film, but once we did, it was pretty damned amazing how far they pushed themselves. Ultimately, it was a collaboration between us."
Nonetheless, Myrick and Sanchez have their own history with horror, citing for inspiration the cheesy matinee pseudo-docs that creeped them out as kids in the Seventies. "The Legend of Boggy Creek is a movie that scared the shit out of me," Myrick confesses. "When we were preparing Blair Witch, we rented it again to see why it was so scary. The thing is that the whole movie is deliberately dark and out of focus, and there's this tone, this feeling of uncertain realism about it. You're never sure if it's real or not." For his part, Sanchez hails the "dirty" quality of blue-collar exploitation classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Last House on the Left (1972)--and indeed it's no faint praise to say that Blair Witch hearkens back to the most bloodcurdling of early-Seventies drive-in horror. So, too, the movie's minimalist means of evoking fear dates back even further to Val Lewton's legendarily inventive Cat People (1942), which similarly uses the dark to its advantage, drawing on the viewer's imagined sense of danger just beyond the edge of the screen. (Die-hard genre buffs will also note Blair Witch's unintended likeness to the late-Seventies Italian shocker Cannibal Holocaust, in which a film crew meets a notoriously harsh fate.)
Whatever the source material, The Blair Witch Project is a stark riposte to the slick pomo satire of current Hollywood teen horror. Not counting one witty reference to Gilligan's Island, there's no cute string of pop-cult allusions here--and no catharsis, either. "Real horror doesn't give you a way out," says Myrick, who reports having walked out of Urban Legend last fall, incensed by its fraudulent form of terror. "Watching Jennifer Love Hewitt running from some CGI monster isn't something that you can really identify with. Whereas the reality of an extreme nightmare situation is that you're out in the middle of nowhere and no one is going to help you. That's what we tried to re-create."
The Blair Witch Project starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.