Raw Terror

Like a creepy campfire story, The Blair Witch Project preys on fear and the imagination to remake American horror.

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It scares people silly. It makes coolheaded adults wonder if witches are real. It draws hundreds of thousands of hits to its website. It drives a local historian in small-town Maryland crazy.

The Blair Witch Project, a first film by two canny young Floridians, has developed a reputation as the most frightening movie to come along in years. With a budget of little more than a new car ("like a Ford or something," suggests one of the filmmakers), the movie began generating several films' worth of anticipation, mythology, and misinformation months before its release. Fangoria magazine, the bible of horror-movie cultists, predicts that it could reinvent the horror genre. Artisan Entertainment, the distributor that bought the film at 5 a.m. after a long night of haggling following a midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival, plans to position the film as a new kind of indie "event movie."

The movie is made up of ostensible found footage shot by three fictional film students who headed into the woods of north-central Maryland to shoot a documentary about a legendary witch whose existence had been rumored for two hundred years. The students, so the story goes, never returned. After looking in vain for the bodies for 33,000 man-hours, the Maryland State Police gave up and called off their search. Almost a year later, a few items the students had taken with them — including a diary and a few reels of videotape — were recovered. It is from those tapes that The Blair Witch Project is convincingly and frighteningly pieced. The film we see, so goes the movie's premise, is a rough document — part videotape, part amateurish 16mm footage, in color and black and white — of the students' disintegration.

Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick, who together wrote and directed the movie, got an early sense of the film's persuasiveness when they heard from a private detective in Albany, New York, asking if he could reopen the case of the missing students. He'd seen a short segment run, War of the Worlds-style, on the Independent Film Channel and figured he could find the students' remains somewhere in Maryland's Black Hill Forest if he had the time to look. Myrick, who took the call, offered an unsympathetic response: "I said, "Hey, man, this is all fiction. Just relax.' "

Myrick and Sanchez seem a little dazed by the attention their film has drawn. Since the movie's purchase at Sundance in January, where Artisan paid a little more than $1 million for worldwide rights, the two novice filmmakers have been busy learning what they call "the scariest part" of this movie — how to make deals and promote the film. In some ways, their lives have improved: They've gone from struggling to pay their utility bills a little over a year ago to sitting on an American directors' panel at Cannes with Spike Lee and John Sayles. In other ways, things have gotten hopelessly hectic and complicated for them, and they're exhausted from the photo shoots and interviews, and from the pressure of topping a film that has yet to even be released in most markets.

Both 1993 graduates of Orlando's University of Central Florida, the two young men are a study in contrasts. Myrick, 35, has handsome, chiseled features behind wire-rim glasses and projects a focused intellectual intensity. He's polite but a little closed up. Sanchez, 30, dresses loosely and carries himself the same way; his dramatic sideburns and dark, unkempt hair make him look like the pale butler from a Gothic thriller. Easygoing and guileless, his fondness for phrases like "Go for it, man" might cause someone, were it still the early '90s, to call him a slacker. Sanchez is also six feet seven inches; Myrick calls him, under his breath, "the tallest Cuban in captivity."

What's most interesting about the Blair Witch boys is that they come bearing a fresh idea at a time when the horror genre desperately needs one. Gods and Monsters, the fictionalized biopic of '30s horror director James Whale, and the ensuing revival of that era's films, such as The Black Cat and Bride of Frankenstein, served as reminders that movie audiences, young and old, have always liked being scared. But the horror movies that have been released this decade have been tarted up as teen-slasher films. Ironic and knowing in a wink-wink kind of way, movies like Scream — full of beautiful TV stars and clever references to other movies — freshen up the slasher with a smarmy twist of humor. But they don't open up new ground for a genre that's stuck remaking old films and remining the same few ideas.

In the last decade or so, special effects and computer-generated technology have intoxicated filmmakers. From I Still Know What You Did Last Summer to the haunted-house-in-space Event Horizon to The Phantom Menace (a long, frenzied commercial for computer-generated images, or CGI), directors have the idea that audiences want more gore, busier on-screen images, and more elaborate monsters. As the technicians and makeup artists become the movie's driving force, Hollywood — across the wide spectrum of horror, action, and science fiction — is losing its ability to tell a story, sketch characters, or chill us psychologically. Consider the case of The Haunting: In the first adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel, from 1963, director Robert Wise terrified audiences with hints of Freudian psychology and an expertly developed claustrophobic mood. By 1999, the forthcoming adaptation of the book has become a big-budget ($75 million) special-effects fest, with Stephen Spielberg overseeing Jan de Bont, the director who brought us the thrill rides Speed, Speed 2, and Twister.

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 on-screen violence and only one brief moment of gore. And instead of extending the smarmy sexuality that has marked slasher films since scantily clad camp-going 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 Texas Chain Saw 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 [manages] 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 preslasher 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 storyline 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 stumbled 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.

A Witch Is Born

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 about 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.

The idea for the witch and her legend also took shape. Myrick explains: "We asked ourselves, "Well, if they're gonna be out in the woods filming, what are they filming? What's their motivation?' So we came up, originally, with some kind of cult in the woods, and it evolved into this legend of a witch." And once they were dealing with a legend that dated back through the centuries, they knew they had to get out of Florida, with its transient population and reputation for leisured retirement. They had to find an older, spookier state. As Sanchez puts it, "There's not a lot of witch stuff in Florida."

Myrick and Sanchez took about a year to audition close to 2,000 people for the film's three roles, looking for people who complemented each other. It was their first major investment in their idea. Instead of asking the actors to read a monologue, they had them improvise: The actors became prisoners pleading to a parole board; plumbers facing angry homeowners with overflowing toilets; gymnasts giving pert, chipper interviews after scoring perfect 10s.

And instead of making the female lead a big-breasted sex symbol — always the first to get killed in a slasher film — they looked for a woman of determination. The female lead — they called her Jane in the original script, but in the film itself she is called by her real name, as are the other actors — was important: She heads the expedition and bears the most psychological pressure, since she has to reassure the others when things go wrong. Originally, they wanted what Myrick calls a "Joan of Arc character . . . strong and noble." But they were convinced by the Captain Ahab-like glint they saw in Heather Donahue's eye, which suggested that she could go down with her ship. "She could really go further," Sanchez recalls. "She could go somewhere normal people couldn't go."

The film's shooting was as unorthodox as the casting. Blair Witch had no script — just a set of situations against which Donahue and the other doomed "students," Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, could improvise. (Originally East Coasters, Donahue and Leonard now live in L.A., while Williams remains in New York. All three have more experience onstage than in film; for all three, Blair Witch will be their theatrical film debuts. Artisan has decided to shield the actors from the press and turned down requests for interviews.)

Early in the movie, before the three students head into the woods, they speak to a few locals about the legend of the Blair witch. ("It actually sounds kinda familiar," a young waitress says. "My older sister went to Blair High School.") Many of these extras, including a woman who holds a baby and is pretty sure she saw a documentary about the Blair witch "on the Discovery Channel or something," are nonactors who weren't in on the film's joke.

In some ways, the actors weren't in on the joke either. "We wouldn't give them any more information than they needed to know," says Myrick. Each plot twist took them as much by surprise as it does the audience. Instead of being handed scripts, the actors were given a rough, two-day course on how to shoot video and were sent into the woods to eat, sleep, hike, and film everything in sight. Their contracts said they'd be harassed and scared, but not put in any real danger.

The actors were trained by Gregg Hale, the film's producer and a veteran of the Army Survival School. (Another graduate of UCF, Hale, like Myrick and Sanchez, is part of a five-member creative collective in Orlando called Haxan Films, whose members all contributed to Blair Witch.) Years ago, while serving in the Army Special Forces as a way to make money for his filmmaking career, Hale had been through a rigorous process called SERE — Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. This training required him to hide by day and hike by night for four days. After being deprived almost entirely of food and sleep, he recalls, "It began to get blurry as to what was real and what wasn't real."

This kind of training, Hale realized, could lead to the ultimate method acting. When he called the actors to tell them they got the parts, he explained the ground rules: "You are gonna be cold, you are gonna be hungry. We are gonna fuck with you, mercilessly."

In the course of shooting, which took place in October of '97, the actors wore Global Positioning Systems headsets that kept them on track and responded to directing notes left in baskets along the way. Only once did the actors break out of character and flee their positions — after losing radio contact with the filmmakers and enduring almost 24 straight hours of cold autumn rain. They ended up at the house of a sympathetic older couple who gave them shelter and dried their clothes. Confounded, the filmmakers searched the woods for them. "We came to this house," remembers Hale, "and they're inside sipping cocoa."

The editing, in which twenty hours of film were boiled down to 87 minutes, took eight months. It was not only more time-consuming, but far more expensive than the shoot itself. Myrick, luckily, had landed a gig editing in-house videos for Planet Hollywood, and he made enough to lease editing gear. Still, the process was costly, and the filmmakers weren't sure if they'd come up with a tale of chilling terror or outrageous humor. "Dan and Ed made the film in the editing room," says Hale. "It was whittling, whittling, whittling down." Myrick says they were "going for that realism that a documentary would capture. The camera's not always in a convenient spot, you don't always get the right thing on screen." Adds Sanchez: "Sometimes the camera comes on in the middle of the action, in the middle of something, not at the beginning of a scene."

Mind Over Splatter

The Blair Witch boys are reluctant in their stance as revolutionaries. They describe their film as an example of benign serendipity and joke sarcastically about being "rebel filmmakers" who break all the rules. Some of their favorite films — Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, Alien, the original Star Wars — are mainstream studio movies. Get them started, though, and they'll critique the history of on-screen terror and discuss how they've "undermined the system."

Sanchez, for instance, talks about his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock, and what The Birds and Psycho taught him about restraint. "You don't show the violence; you don't show the horror on-screen. You show it off-screen, and then you build up to a payoff. And the problem these days is that the audience has become so used to $100 million CGI budgets that the payoff is becoming bigger and bigger, and yet it's becoming less and less of a payoff.

"Like the first scene in the first Alien, where you see that alien uncoil itself and come down, when Ripley's on the ship by herself. It's the first time that kind of design was done, and people were like "Holy shit.' You can't do that these days. The audience is just too smart for that — they've been bombarded by images like that for the last fifteen years. I think Blair comes up with a new way to scare people. We started realizing that what we'd done is a film that lives a certain percentage on the screen and a certain percentage in the viewer's head, like no other film has done for a while."

Says Myrick: "You're looking at CGI being accessible in a way it has never been before. I think it can become a trap for a filmmaker — and you almost write scripts around the excuse to use CGI. The horror and the drama take a backseat to the effects."

Myrick, who seems more interested in going against film tradition than the more laid-back Sanchez, grew up watching slashers. But he says that cheeky, farcical movies like Scream have run their course. "I think they're fun, but I don't think they're scary. I don't think they're horrific. We're so used to the conventions. You hear the music cue, and you know if the camera moves up and favors to one side something's gonna come out, so you're expecting it, and it's so predictable. And you know the main characters are never going to get killed. It's a formula that becomes so predictable. I don't find that scary. Just going "boo' to someone is easier, I think, than developing some psychological dread.

"I think horror films are falling under the same franchise mentality as other [studio] films," says Myrick. Cool-looking monsters — whether defined by a hockey mask like Friday the 13th's Jason or knives for fingers like A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy — dominate the energy of the filmmakers. Lost in this is the horror that should be driving the film in the first place. "We just got back to the essentials of what scared us."

Tony Timpone, editor of Fangoria, agrees that effects and CGI are wagging the dog. "It becomes a case of one-upmanship," he says. "One year, there's ten special effects in a film, and then the next year, there have to be fifty. I think Armageddon is definitely the worst offender — it was just a headache-inducing experience. I just saw Wild Wild West — that was just visual effects for visual effects' sake. It looked cool, but it was all just "so what?' There's been a real dumbing down of the motion picture industry."

Myrick and Sanchez have chosen to maintain both a stylistic and a geographic distance from Hollywood. Though Orlando has a limited film scene, the two feel comfortable there and say Disney has promised them a good deal shooting on a back lot at Disney World. They take their status as members of Haxan Films seriously — Myrick compares Haxan to the Scandinavian collaborative Dogma 95 in their attempt to make effects-free minimalist films, and he speaks about the way the collective sustains them both creatively and personally.

Marketing the Macabre

The press has likened the film to a "garage band" because of its rough technique and low budget. But Myrick and Sanchez aren't shy about using arena-rock methods to get their film out. They went to Sundance with a pretty traditional retinue — a high-powered lawyer, a prestigious publicist, and a well-respected agent — even before the movie had been picked up by a distributor. As producer Gregg Hale puts it, "We had done "guerrilla' enough."

Though a grassroots buzz had developed at horror and sci-fi conventions and on the Internet, the execs who caught the movie at its Sundance midnight screening didn't have guerrilla marketing in mind either. John Hegeman, the Artisan executive vice president for worldwide marketing who bought the film in Park City, saw a late-'90s phenomenon in its raw form: an indie event movie. The film, he realized, could generate so much word of mouth that people wouldn't be able to ignore it. Five months later, Hegeman discusses the movie's "counterprogramming" and promotional strategy as if detailing an army invasion: The movie, he says, will employ "the same event-marketing techniques" the company would use for a blockbuster. "It's just [aimed] to a subtler, well-defined, and rabid moviegoing audience" in metropolitan centers. That is, until the film storms suburbia a few weeks later, where it'll be aimed at everybody. "It's been very organized. We've tried to be as strategic as possible."

Besides the movie itself, Artisan has coordinated the release of a comic book and a novelization that's packaged as an investigation into the students' disappearance. (The Blair Witch Project #151; A Dossier will be released in mid-August by Onyx, a division of Penguin/Putnam.) The filmmakers joke about Blair Witch key chains and an upcoming musical.

Gone are the days, Hegeman says, when a specialized film needs good reviews and a booking in the right art house. A movie like Blair Witch can really hit if it builds what he calls an "overall field of anticipation" in cult circles and then in the big cities where it opens first. Artisan did this kind of marketing with the obsessive technological thriller Pi last summer; the mathematical symbol appeared on little stickers all over Manhattan, as if a mysterious underground band was arriving from the cellars of Britain. When Pi appeared at SoHo's Angelika Film Center — unspectacular, but intriguing and well-hyped — it repeatedly sold out the theater and made more money on its opening weekend than any movie appearing at a single cinema last year.

The imagery and strategy for Blair Witch's crossover success are already in place: All the movie's trailers and ads use a stick-figure logo that takes on menacing meaning in the film. The film opened in twenty cities last weekend; it rolls out to twenty more markets — including Cleveland — on July 30, so that it will not have to compete with DreamWorks' The Haunting, which arrives nationwide on July 23. This kind of thinking is necessary, says Hegeman, because the audience for specialized film has changed in the past few years. "They're younger, hipper, and have a more commercial mentality," he says.

A Tangled Web Is Woven

Myrick and Sanchez are certainly not the first filmmakers to use a website to promote their film, but they may be the first to get it right. Studios, they say, usually use a website as a glorified magazine article. Sanchez points out that there's little reason to consult the site "if you don't care about where the director was born or whatever." But if filmmakers keep adding to their site, it takes on a life of its own and can become "a whole alternate universe."

With this in mind, they started a modest website while in the middle of editing, filling it with photos of the lost students and a picture of Josh's lost Dodge Daytona. Artisan took over the website when it bought the film and made it more elaborate, adding things like an interview with a grieving mother and news footage of cops who've searched in vain for the bodies. From the beginning, the website has helped create the Blair witch legend, with a time line going all the way back to the 1780s, when a woman was accused of luring children into her home and drawing their blood. ("By midwinter, all of the accusers and half of the town's children had vanished," the time line tells us.)

As major studios pour small fortunes into billboards and television and magazine ads, the Internet has become a place where David can go up against Goliath. "Five guys who were dead broke can put up a website and compete with Universal," says Myrick. "It really does level the playing field for people like us." The web page also allowed Myrick and Sanchez to salvage the supporting material they lost when they made their movie cinema verité instead of an In Search Of documentary.

"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 website, 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."

A Scare With Flair

Though Blair Witch's positioning and website 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 Méli&eagrave;s 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 '40s horror movies such as The 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 '70s, by '80s 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.

Scott Timberg can be reached at [email protected].

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