Witch is it . . .

. . . fact or fiction?

I'M ACHING FOR SOME unsuspecting viewers to stumble on this film in a mall theater, thinking they're getting some Hollywood horror movie, only to discover it's a "documentary." It's not, of course—it's merely a smart, scary facsimile. Think of a Discovery Channel program by way of "Cops," the result being "America's Scariest Home Videos." Directors/writers/editors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have taken the reality-show concept to its fictional limit: According to the volumes of publicity materials, the three actors shot and recorded the film themselves, becoming their characters for a moviemaking/camping odyssey and communicating with the directors via instructions left in baskets on location.

Against all odds, it works.

The Blair Witch Project

directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

opens Friday, July 23, at Pacific Place

The film begins with a foreboding statement that in October 1994 three filmmakers went into the Black Hills Forest of Maine to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch. They were never heard from again, but a year later their footage was found and fashioned into this documentation of their experience. The mock-seriousness is immediately leavened by scenes—captured on home video shot by project director Heather Donahue (for her "making of" companion piece, no doubt)—of the three students goofing around as they prepare for their trip. Together with soundman Michael Williams and camera operator Joshua Leonard, they head off deep into the forest to find the spooky locations of the Witch's fabled reign of terror.

They become hopelessly lost, and that's when the goofing ends and the terror begins. As their three-day hike turns into a delirious seven-day ordeal, the trio is haunted by distant moans and cries and little voodoo-style stick men made of branches and leaves found outside their tents; soon they collapse into bickering and panicked hysteria. Luckily, Heather, even when startled awake in the middle of the night, still has the wherewithal to turn on her Camcorder.

That's a logical break I'm willing to give the filmmakers because they turn it into an aesthetic. We squint to make out an image in the streaky, grainy gray patterns that just might be a picture. Compounded by the shiver-inducing screams, cries, and just plain weird primitive howls, the feeling of being lost and helpless and surrounded by a sea of darkness becomes overwhelming. Myrick and Sanchez have remembered what so many spectacle-oriented thrill-kill directors have forgotten: imagined horror is far more effective than anything a filmmaker can offer on-screen. The two supply more than enough bumps in the night to keep our collective imaginations in overdrive, but it's their effective use of the reality-TV aesthetic that makes this movie so intimate and immediate. In its own modest, seemingly artless way, The Blair Witch Project is the most genuinely scary film to creep across screens in years.

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