Fresh Blood

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

"From there, we just kept building and building to create this whole folklore," says Myrick. "And it's still going to this day, with the Web site, book, comic book and all that. Almost, in a way, it started as a motivation for the characters, and it became a whole complement to the film, a whole universe that the film is just part of."

Though Blair Witch's positioning and Web site may make it sound like a cross between a corporate marketing scam and a campus prank run amok, the film itself has unimpeachable integrity. It doesn't smell of the suits who bought it--it reeks of the untamed woods.

From the beginning of the horror genre, good ideas and new possibilities have come from outsiders with low budgets. The first "fantastic" film, in fact, was an accident: Parisian stage magician Georges Melies was filming a street scene in 1896 when his camera jammed, the film stopped feeding, and on the resulting film a bus turns inexplicably into a hearse. "This wonderfully macabre metamorphosis," writes film historian Carlos Clarens, "was the genesis of all film trickery."

And while many films of horror and suspense have been poetic and stylized--from German silent films like Nosferatu through the elegant myths of James Whale up to the controlled, formal work of Alfred Hitchcock and beyond--an underground lineage has also thrived beneath the surface. These films are antipoetic and try to persuade us that what we're seeing on the screen is life itself, devoid of artifice. The king of this lo-fi line was Val Lewton, who produced small-budget Forties horror movies such as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, whose terror derived from suggestion and atmosphere instead of gore or costumed monsters. He and Jacques Tourneur, who directed both films and several others for Lewton, believed in the power of the unseen and the implied.

Two decades later, a television commercial director in Pittsburgh named George Romero scraped together piecemeal financing and nonacting friends to make 1968's Night of the Living Dead. (His previous claim to fame had been a heralded ad for the laundry detergent Calgon.) The characters and their small-town setting are not romanticized, as in Whale's poetic films or the Poe adaptations that Roger Corman was churning out at the time, and there was little mysticism. It was Lewton and Romero--much more than the slasher directors rising from the grave John Carpenter opened with 1978's Halloween--who set the stage for Blair Witch.

The most exciting, and frightening, thing about Blair Witch is that while it's informed by Romero, by Psycho, by the schlock documentaries of the Seventies, by Eighties slashers and their ironic offspring, it belongs to no genre. It inherits no formula. It thrills us and frightens us because it's familiar, but we don't entirely recognize it. As we watch it, we really don't know what's going to happen next.

Despite Myrick and Sanchez's success with the horror genre, they're interested in making all kinds of films with various permutations of the Haxan crew. They're currently writing a slapstick romantic comedy called Heart of Love, which Artisan will develop. Myrick describes it as "Monty Python meets Airplane meets Saturday Night Live." (Artisan has signed them to a two-picture first-look deal, of which Heart is the initial film.) And they say they're interested in drama, science-fiction, action films--every genre they can get their hands on.

Indie guru John Pierson, who put up some of the early money for the film and ran two short segments on his Split Screen show on the Independent Film Channel, says he fell for the eight-minute segment about the missing filmmakers when he first saw it. But even more exciting than the film's realism, he says, is the way it cuts right through the weakness of independent film--which has developed its own kind of formula. "Usually, it's three guys sitting around the apartment kvetching about their sex lives," he says. "Anything that gets people out of the apartment and into the woods I'm all in favor of. And it's great that they worked within a genre, or a couple of genres."

Can Blair Witch steer the film industry back to making movies with characters, acting, persuasive premises? It may be that the imagination necessary to fuel the film, to create the fear that drives it, has been wiped out of us by sensory overload. That we've been spoiled by years of overly literal special effects. If we still have the power to imagine--and an increasingly ossified Hollywood still has the ability to be scared straight by outsiders--The Blair Witch Project could be one of the most influential movies in years.

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