Fresh Blood

The left-field, ultra-low-budget The Blair Witch Project scares us in a way that Hollywood's forgotten

Without convincing stories and characters, these movies aren't frightening; they're just gross. Blair Witch is something different: Simple, raw and with recognizable characters, it manages to be heart-poundingly scary with no onscreen violence and only one brief moment of gore. And instead of extending the smarmy sexuality that has marked the slasher since scantily clad campgoing teens were killed in Friday the 13th, this movie makes fear--not retribution against the promiscuous--its main theme.

Even Fangoria, whose pages each month are splattered with a gleeful celebration of blood and guts (the magazine's annual laurels are called the Chainsaw Awards, after the chilling The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), has fallen for the film. "In fact, it's safe to say that Blair Witch is not only the scariest American horror movie in years, it's also the only title in recent memory that could likely give even the most faithful Fangoria reader many a troubled, sleepless night," says a writer in the July issue. "Blair Witch could very well become one of those defining key works in horror that manage to reinvigorate the genre."

Myrick and Sanchez's knowledge of horror films doesn't stop with Halloween and Friday the 13th. They're interested in cinematic terror that thrived before they were born, in movies such as Hitchcock's Psycho and The Birds, and in pre-slasher films like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. Their movie has been compared to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the no-budget 1968 movie that created an underground lineage for horror movies by downplaying the supernatural and special effects and including in the story line ordinary folks who live next door.

But the Blair Witch boys weren't looking to apply any film-school theory of horror with their movie. "Blair just happened to be the best low-budget idea we had at the time," says Sanchez casually, as if he stumbles upon this kind of thing all the time. "You know, it just used all the weaknesses of independent film--used them in its favor--like shaky camera work, no lighting, no-name talent."

The story of how Blair Witch came to be shows how fresh, valuable work can come from the most unlikely of sources.

The movie is really driven by one austere idea. The concept behind the film fell into place one day when Myrick and Sanchez were hanging out in the latter's Orlando apartment in 1993, still worrying about passing classes and graduating.

"For some reason I got on this horror kick," Sanchez remembers, "and thought about how there hasn't been a good horror film in a long time. And we got to talking about how the films that really used to scare us, a lot of them were documentaries, the In Search Ofs--the UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster--about paranormal phenomena. I used to love--remember the show That's Incredible?--when they used to do haunted-house stories. That shit would freak me out on a weekly basis."

They went out and rented all kinds of videos--movies like Nostradamus, Chariots of the Gods?, a Nova special on UFOs in which Myrick and Sanchez could spot computer enhancement and wires holding up flying saucers, and a Leonard Nimoy-narrated episode of the In Search Of TV series about Eva Braun.

They were also pleased when they revisited The Legend of Boggy Creek, a 1972 "true story" about a Sasquatch-type monster romping through an Arkansas swamp. (The film, which eventually became a cult classic, bombed upon its original release and drew its most consistent audiences at drive-ins in the Deep South.)

"It was very creepy to think about the possibility of something like that being right in your own neighborhood," says Myrick. "So that's what we did. There was no grand inspiration from another filmmaker. It was those cheesy documentaries that really scared us as kids."

Originally, The Blair Witch Project was going to be made in the grainy style of a feature-length In Search Of episode. "We were going to have third-party analysis," says Sanchez, "and interviews with the parents, and all that stuff, and have these moments of horror that you see from this 'found' footage."

Graduation came. Sanchez went back to hauling blueprints across the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Myrick returned to bartending in Orlando; he eventually landed a lucrative but frustrating gig directing TV commercials. Both worked on short-film projects on the side. But the guys stayed in touch, as the years went by, and they never totally gave up hope on what they called "the woods movie."

The idea was revived on a dark afternoon in the spring of '96 when Sanchez hit bottom. "I was driving my blueprint truck one day and feeling sorry for myself because my [16mm] film Gabriel's Dream hadn't done anything. And I knew Dan was in Florida and I knew he was in the same situation, just doing this commercial stuff and not real happy. And I was like, 'Man, you've got to do another film, you've got to pick yourself up and get back on the horse again.' And I called him up and said, 'We've got to do that woods movie.'

"Our initial idea was that the film had to look real from beginning to end," continues Sanchez. "No three-point lighting, no CGI, no monsters coming out from the ground. We didn't want to show any ghosts, we didn't want to show any Blair witch." As they ran up credit-card debt renting audition space and making an eight-minute trailer for investors, they decided to rethink the film's presentation a bit. Instead of breaking the frame by including speeches by experts and grieving relatives, the film would be a gradual descent into disorienting and claustrophobic terror--strictly a record of the ordeal the film students experienced.

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