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A movie review

by Jesse Gale

NEW YORK, 25 August 1999 - The Blair Witch Project has been touted in the mainstream media as a suggestive squealer of a horror flick, but it won't make your flesh creep. Instead, Blair Witch fascinates through its disturbing chronicle of twisted-kid group dynamics. Not only does the film show viewers what would happen if The Lord of the Flies included girls on film, but -- more frighteningly -- it shows audience viewers their own lust for cruelty and humiliation.

Made on an impressively low $40,000 shoestring budget, Blair Witch Project reflects on sadistic voyeurism as it trails three would-be filmmakers on a hell trek. Initially, it looks like a Halloween Special of MTV's Road Rules: Heather (Heather Donohue), her cameraman Josh (Joshua Leonard), and her new sound man Mike (Michael Williams) set out giddily to document their search for the Blair Witch, a hideous beastie who bloodies children at will in the Maryland woods.

The crew is initially skeptical about the Blair Witch legend; but Josh and Mike, provoked by the acts of malevolent spirits, increasingly suspend their disbelief, and Heather's realist approach to the documentary begins to grate on them.

They turn on their bossy-girl leader, unwilling to believe her stories anymore. In the dark, Heather breathes low: "did you hear that baby screaming?" Her tent-mates snarl back: "There's no fucking baby out there; there's no fucking baby out there." Throughout, the film agonizes over what's real and what isn't; the film's internet site and promotion titillate viewers with hints that Blair Witch documents actual horrors.

But no one with half a grain of sense believes that shtick. It's clear that directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have merely utilized the Real World / Road Rules pseudo-documentary form to create a spooky adventure. But many viewers don't realize that Myrick and Sanchez critique the faux documentary form. By focusing on how cameras can become instruments of torture, the film comments on what audiences look for in these faked documentaries. Witches and bloodied plastic heads are just a hoax; the real horror is the audience's desire to see how people humiliate each other. We want the juice of metaphorical backstabbing, not spurts of red syrup.

Gregg Hale, a producer of the film, explained to the Village Voice what's special about the Real World format: "By applying the same physical and mental stresses to the actors - lack of food, lack of sleep, walking them around, fucking with them at night, we hoped by the time we really needed them to freak out, they would be able to tap into areas of their psyche they normally wouldn't be able to tap into. We wanted to capture those moments of magic that you just can't script. "Turns out, the magic that the filmmakers captured is far freakier than Heather's mucosal weeping and shrieking - excretions of a cheaper sort.

What the audience secretly craves-- and what it gets in gross -- are gruesome alliances and powerplays, minute tortures inflicted by each actor on the other. At one point (with the spooky stuff well under way), Josh relieves Heather of her camera (her only true friend?), and gazes through it at her shame and misery. "I see why you like the camera," he drawls at his cringing subject. "It's like you can pretend everything's not really the way it is." The film offers something more, or something different, than fear. It offers disgust, and for those who identify with the characters, a bonus of vicarious shame.

At the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan, one audience member griped: "That wasn't scary at all." But audiences shouldn't look to be Halloween / Scream scared. To appreciate all the film's creepy gifts, consider the viciousness of the characters - and the audience's interest in that viciousness. More frightening than gift-wrapped giblets, The Blair Witch Project offers an all too real look at why we like to watch people fall apart, how that consoles us and how it thrills us. By examining that creepily human compulsion, the film is better than scary - it's excrutiating.

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