August 1999
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by Brian Thomas

In the summer of 1999, a Smug columnist disappeared into a theater to watch a movie. A week later, his column was found.

It was supposed to be the Summer of the Lightsaber, with endless armies of people lining up to see The Phantom Menace over and over and over again - then going to a toy store to buy as many lame Star Wars toys as they could find - and then getting back in line to buy another ticket. Instead, the public spread the wealth around, turning out in record numbers for a lot of different films. Comedies did very well, but surprisingly few action movies showed up for their usual summer playground. In their place, unexpectedly, we've got a full scale wave of horror films on our hands and in our pockets. It's turned out to be a Summer of Scares.

You could call it some kind of backlash, but it seems Hollywood wants to scare us again. Scream rekindled the fire, but it was too self-conscious to be really scary. It was more concerned with being darn clever. Hollywood smelled the dollars coming in and reacted as they always will - by trying to copy the formula. So they put out a whole string of copies and variations - Invasion of the Teen Body Snatchers, The Stepford Teens, etcetera. But it made a lot of us think back to a time when a horror movie had, you know, adults in it. Everbody remembers a movie that really scared the crap out of them: jumping in your seat, hiding your eyes as tears of fear well up, not being able to sleep without waking up sweating and screaming from horrifying nightmares. Man, that was sweet.

I remember my first time very well - the first time a movie really scared me. I was perhaps three years old. Pop was at his second job, driving a bakery truck on the night shift I believe. Mom was staying up late (I inherited my night owl alpha rhythms from her), and watching TV. Some strange creepy beatnik character named Marvin was going to show a movie called The Cyclops, with Lon Chaney. Mom let my sister and I stay down in the living room with her, but being a responsible parent, she didn't want to let us watch a scary movie at a tender and innocent age. So we laid down on the floor on blankets, and she told us we had to keep our eyes covered or else be sent to bed. I guess she thought we would drift of to sleep. My sister did right away, but I'm not built like that - I stayed awake listening to growling monsters and eerie music and imagining all kinds of wild stuff was going on. But I didn't dare look - even when I was carried up to bed later, thoughtfully pretending to be asleep, I kept my eyes tightly closed. And when I got to bed I kept the protective anti-monster covers over my head all night long.

The Blair Witch Project using no money, no director and no script, succeeds by ingeniously recreating that feeling. Total subjectivity draws you in - you don't know any more than the three hapless characters do, except for what's been revealed in the opening slide: that these three young adults went into the Maryland woods to make a documentary, and they were never seen again. There's no special effects, no music - the only thing that might take you out of the film is the fact that these kids - Heather, Josh and Mike - are filming and videotaping everything. If I'm ever in a situation where I have to run like hell through the dark woods at midnight because some unknown, uncanny thing is after me... Well, let's just say I'm gonna drop the twenty pound camera. I'm gonna need to let go of some ballast in that situation.

As remarkable as the film itself is the way it has been marketed. Haxan Films, and their distributor Artisan Entertainment, used the web almost exclusively to spread the word. While megamillion dollar films are begging users to check out their macro-flashy little heavy-download-time sites, these scrappy folks put up a simple, elegant, and downright creepy site to keep the ball rolling and the rumors flowing.

Speaking of high budget Hollywood product: as if to remind us just how richly creative this little $25,000 wonder is, the anti-Blair Witch Project opened in most theaters the same day. Robert Wise' The Haunting is one of those films that scared me as a kid, using only lighting, sound effects, and one hell of a scary haunted house. Jan DeBont's remake is as bloated a feature as you can imagine, going insane playing with Hollywood's new f/x toys, while apparently forgetting how its scenes are supposed to be edited together.

Wise had a scene that gave me chills, in which Julie Harris is holding tightly to someone's hand during a ghostly visitation - only after the ghost leaves, she finds that no one was there to hold her hand. DeBont has Lili Taylor recreate the scene. She too is wondering who was holding her hand - but he forgot the set-up. She never said anything about someone holding her hand until after. This kind of careless continuity is indicative of the careless attitude permeating the entire film.

Wise gave me a heart attack by banging on the walls of the house. That approach is just a little too subtle for DeBont - he has the walls heave, shake, and dance around. Wise creeps you out by changing the shade of paintings and sculptures. DeBont has the sculptures come to life and chase the mailman. Wise made the film's evil spirit, Hugh Crain, ever-present but invisible. DeBont has his Crain flying around the house like a blimp at the Superbowl. I expected to see Bill Murray charge in with a proton pack to save the day any minute.

DeBont's special effects, like the awesome house they bring to life, are incredible, making the film worth seeing for the spectacle at least. But while the industrial-size light & pixel show is going on, the highly talented cast is turned into props in the background. Wise made the characters the center of his film, turning in a ghost story that was a psychological study as much as anything else. The ghosts were frightening because we could only see them in the hearts of the people in the story.

Blair Witch uses that same power to generate fear. It builds up it's tension steadily, making us wish to hell we could see what was just out of view of the camera, while at the same time making us hope like hell that we never do.

I want to see it again sometime soon. But not just yet. In the meantime I'll be writing my column from here, deep under the covers.


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