ONE OF THE scariest things I've ever seen in a film was in John Carpenter's The Prince of Darkness. The 1987 film was full of the usual John Carpenter horror schlock, such as the image of cockroaches spewing out the mouth of a vagrant (played by Alice Cooper). But there's one scene, which only takes a few moments, that is genuinely scary. A man, receiving a transmission from the future via his dreams, sees a brief, hazy image of what's supposedly the Antichrist. You can't really make it out, and he can't quite be sure it wasn't just a dream. The story itself is pretty cheesy, but the fuzziness and especially the uncertainty of that one image left my late-night fears buzzing for weeks.
The Blair Witch Project, an independent film made on a budget that would barely pay for John Carpenter's personal assistant, is full of such moments. Its entire effectiveness rests on what you can't see -- i.e., what your imagination fills in. You might say it's the antithesis to the gorefests of George Romero, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg and others, but that's not saying enough. It doesn't even show any murders, or monsters, or bodies. With the exception of a character's discovery of some freshly extracted teeth, there's not even any blood. It's the Ouija board of horror films.
Despite its lack of meat, however, The Blair Witch Project does have a thick crust of realism. Presented as the found documentary footage of three student filmmakers lost in the woods and never seen again, the thorough believability of the movie is its great achievement. In fact, Blair takes verisimilitude to such an extreme that it can rightly be called an experimental film. Consisting entirely of hand-held, point-of-view shots, it's more like watching a personal video diary than a scare flick. Structurally it would be right at home on PBS.
The movie's creation has already entered into the realm of indie-film legends, alongside El Mariachi, Clerks, Pi and other auspicious low-budget debuts. Operating out of a small production company in Orlando, Florida, the producers hired three actors based on their ability to improvise while remaining natural. Then they sent them into the Maryland woods with cameras and recording equipment, but no script -- only the vaguest instructions. Described as "method filmmaking," the movie completely eradicates the concept of having a director. It's more like a cinematic game of hide-and-seek: for eight days the actors tromped around the forest improvising, while the producers snuck around trying to freak them out. As a result the characters' fatigue, irritation and confusion, and even some of their fear, is genuine.
Because its presentation is so matter-of-fact, there are times when Blair risks becoming dull. Though ringleader Heather Donahue has a lively, forceful demeanor (she's now being groomed for an A-list acting career), the other two actors have the flat, grumbly personalities of typical slackers. And a spooky, richly detailed back-story involving an 18th-century witch legend and the 1940s mass-murder of some local children can't make up for the long stretches in which the trio just bicker at each other about being lost in the woods. (Speaking of the back-story, the equally "realistic" website at www.blairwitch.com is amazing, and almost a movie in its own right.)
Fortunately, the minimalism is punctuated by moments of terrific humor. The opening scenes turn small-town simple-mindedness and film-school ineptitude into a very funny almost-satire; and even the more arduous walking-and-resting scenes are occasionally spiced up by the characters' exasperated wit. ("We've got to find a road at some point; this is America -- we've destroyed all our natural resources!")
Minimalism is the rule when the movie shifts gears to terror, too. I don't want to give much away, but Blair gets more mileage out of sticks, stones, strange sounds and character reactions than any of its predecessors in the horror genre ever got out of entrails and decapitations. For my money, there's nothing so terrifying as a flashlight pointed toward trees at nighttime -- revealing nothing and not reaching very far into the darkness -- only to reveal more woods and hidden spaces.
Overall, though, Blair is a deceptively dry viewing experience. Most of its fearsomeness is cumulative; it has maybe two or three spine-tingling moments. Like all true horror, it sneaks up on you subconsciously. For most of the movie, I was pretty blasé. Even though the characters were known to have disappeared, and there was obviously something evil at work, I figured they'd find a way out somehow. The film's abrupt ending proved me wrong, but it also left me feeling a bit disappointed. "Whatever," I laughed at my friend, who insisted on staying for the credits so she could be sure it was only a movie. I scoffed.
Then I went home, and my imagination took over. I kept the lights on all night.
The Blair Witch Project opens Friday, July 30, at Century Park (620-0750), El Dorado (745-6241) and Foothills (742-6174) cinemas.