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So good that it's scary; Review: Stripped of pretense, 'The Blair Witch Project' is hauntingly beautiful.


It's somehow fitting that "The Blair Witch Project" should be released the same day as "Eyes Wide Shut."

Whereas "Eyes Wide Shut" is opulent to the point of excess, "The Blair Witch Project" is lean and spare, virtually free of visible production values.

Whereas "Eyes Wide Shut" is the final stroke from a cinematic genius, "The Blair Witch Project" is the first film of two thirtyish auteurs.

And whereas "Eyes Wide Shut" features two huge stars and has all the emotional immediacy of a storefront window, "The Blair Witch Project" features a cast of unknowns and packs an emotional wallop entirely disproportionate to its meager pedigree.

What's more, this terrifying ghost story is guaranteed to haunt filmgoers long after they've persuaded themselves that it's only a movie. If Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick -- who wrote, directed and edited "The Blair Witch Project" -- can be credited with anything, it should be for making basements unsafe again.

"The Blair Witch Project" is a pseudo-documentary, but throw out any preconceptions borne of movies like "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Waiting for Guffman." Here, such cinema verite techniques as hand-held cameras, unrehearsed dialogue and awkward edits are used to create a seamless sense of reality and, indirectly, a mounting sense of terror.

Never once sacrificing realism, the filmmakers have created the most uncompromising film to be seen on screens lately, an admirable feat even if they didn't scare the bejeebers out of you in the process. Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams star as three student filmmakers who in 1994 embarked on a journey to Western Maryland to make a documentary about the local legend of the Blair Witch. Like any self-respecting director, Donahue brought along a video camera to document the making of her film.

But once the trio makes its way into the woods outside Burkittsville, an introduction tells us, the filmmakers disappeared. "The Blair Witch Project" is an edited version of the film and video material they left behind and the only document of their fate. "The Blair Witch Project" follows the trio as they make their way to Burkittsville (formerly Blair), where they interview locals about the legendary witch, who was said to have absconded with the village's children in the 18th century.

Myrick and Sanchez, who studied film together at the University of Central Florida, were weaned on schlock-mockumentaries like "The Legend of Boggy Creek" and the television series "In Search Of," and those roots show. But in this case, ugly-looking videotape, nauseating camera movements and shots of leaves on the ground mesh perfectly with the filmmakers' goal to make their film as genuine-looking as possible.

Donahue, Leonard and Williams hold up their end of the bargain, especially when their breezy bravado begins to show cracks. But most of the credit for how scarily effective "The Blair Witch Project" is goes to Myrick and Sanchez, who faithfully hew to the first principle of horror -- never, ever show the monster.

These young men know that whatever the audience is imagining is far more frightening than anything they can show.

Filmgoers who don't realize that "The Blair Witch Project" is fiction will no doubt be upset at what looks like a particularly unsavory attempt to exploit a true crime tale. But even those in the know will find themselves looking at the world in a new way days after they've seen it.

With this exhilarating return to the roots of cinematic horror, Sanchez and Myrick prove to be two of the most promising harbingers of its future.

'Blair Witch'

Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael Williams

Directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick

Rated R (language)

Released by Artisan Entertainment

Running time: 87 minutes

Sun score: ****

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