Arts: If you go down to the woods

It was made on a shoestring. It's not gruesome. So why is The Blair Witch Project setting nerves on edge in the States?
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The Independent Culture
It's 2.30 on a Monday afternoon that can't make up its mind whether to be sunny or menacing, and The Blair Witch Project is happening. I have come to the Bridge Theatre on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, at the point where the boulevard flattens out for its long westward haul to the ocean. It is a small theatre, a 400-seater, and the place in town for sleepless hits. I meant sleeper. It's where Good Will Hunting and Happiness both ran.

And last weekend, the Bridge broke its house record with The Blair Witch Project. There's already a line for the 3.20pm performance, so I hurry to the cramped kiosk. A sad face looks out at me and my money and gives me a ticket. There's a notice already on the window that warns how the two evening shows are sold out. I get in line and stand there trying to read Across the River and into the Trees. I picked it at random, reckoning to get reacquainted with Hemingway at his centenary. But now others look at my book, and giggle at the title. As if it referred to people you would never see again.

The line consists largely of people in the age range 14-24. Blair Witch has an R-rating and there are reminders on the theatre doors that no one under the age of 17 will be admitted without an accompanying parent or guardian. I don't see many of them. Instead, I size up several knots of kids, none of whom looks a certifiable 17. So I wonder how careful the Bridge is going to be letting them in - after they've paid. Only a few weeks ago, at South Park, people had to show picture I.D., but that frenzy has passed. The new frenzyis for seeing this film, and if there is trouble, then surely one of the 23-year-olds - that one, with the green hair and the tattoos - will likely volunteer and whisper, "Oh, I'll look after her. There, my dear, come with me."

Is any film so dangerous it justifies that company? Nerves are on edge. At 2.50pm the first house totters out into the light. There are girls pretending to be weak at the knees - or are they pretending? There are guys who pull their belts a little tighter. They look pale. There are stories in the press of people who have been reduced to nausea by the sheer terror and the giddy camerawork of the film. I look behind me, and the line is enormous. I determine to make damn sure I get a seat on the end of a row. There's just so much dense anonymous human company I can take, thank you. And it's called The Blair Witch Project, which no one had heard of until a few weeks ago. Didn't I write recently in this very paper that those are the only movies to trust and be afraid of these days?

I get an end seat, and the place is packed - 3.20 on a Monday afternoon! And this crowd is hushed, like the relatives assembled for the reading of a big will. We get through the necessary trailers, and now, here it comes: from Artisan Pictures, with plain lettering, white on black, The Blair Witch Project, with this introduction: a few years ago, three young film-makers went into the Maryland woods to search for the infamous Blair witch. They never came out. But their video footage was found, and this is it.

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez are both in their early 30s. They met as film students at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, and they made The Blair Witch Project as a student movie. You hear different stories about how much the film cost: they range from $25,000 to $50,000. Which may just mean that as the labour of love became a hot property several people on the production reminded the directors that they weren't paid - so don't forget them when the gravy comes down.

Here's the gravy - like the blood coming out of the elevator in The Shining. The Blair Witch Project played at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, and had a mixed reception. Some were scared, a lot of people felt it was silly. But Sundance has a very movie-aware audience, and the people at Artisan weren't put off. They thought the concept was daringly novel; they reckoned the result might be.

Well, they bought the distribution rights for $1.5m. "The only frightening thing about The Blair Witch Project," said one wit, "is what Artisan paid for it."

The film opened at a handful of theatres on July 16, and the Artisan advance was earned back in three days. It opened here at the Bridge a week later, on Friday, July 23, and over the weekend its take was $49,000. As I write, it is playing at only 27 theatres in the U.S., but it has earned over $3m so far. Friday, July 23, was also the day that The Haunting opened - a re-make of the classic, with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones, a big, expensive film, directed by Jan de Bont, who made Speed and Twister. Across the nation, The Haunting was the top box-office attraction of the weekend with rentals of $33m from at least 1,500 screens. Its per- screen average income was $11,752.

The per-screen average of The Blair Witch Project was $64,000. Another film also in its second week of release (just to make a proper comparison) was something called Eyes Wide Shut. That had a per- screen average of $3,987, after its business had fallen off, from one week to the next, by a crushing 54 per cent.

Plans are now active for The Blair Witch Project to "break out". By the start of August it should be in a 1,000 theatres. Word of mouth is building - if you can get the nervous wrecks to calm down long enough to make sense. That could mean that it's going to have a week in which it takes in $25-50m. Of course, the "cost" of the movie now is going up, as Artisan puts heavy advertising schemes to work. Indeed, production and marketing could yet go as high as $15m. Even at the instant of "Eureka!", movie accounting does all it can to restore a natural balance.

Amid this phenomenon, Eyes Wide Shut seems like a last gasp from the parental class - as well as a lousy film. It's not my purpose here to spoil the fun of The Blair Witch Project for British audiences. The three kids who go off into the woods are played by Heather Donohue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard, though I doubt whether you need to remember the names. They start out cocksure, cool and flip, kidding around, shooting their herky-jerky video. They go deeper into what is - let's admit - a very scruffy looking wood. There's nothing here of deep dark glades, lush undergrowth, or a feeling of going back in time. But gradually their confidence fails. At night, they hear noises outside their tent. They begin to imagine sinister forces in the forest. They turn into terrified kids. And then they come to an old, ruined house. Don't make me tell you all about that.

I will only say that, for a modern horror film, The Blair Witch Project is refreshingly free from blood and dismemberment. The worst things here happen in the mind - and it may be your mind. It may not. My own experience is that audiences either get this movie or they don't. I didn't. I could appreciate the way the unknown and the unseen were conjured up. I have as much appetite for demoralization as anyone. I admire the way Sanchez and Myrick use some of the approaches pioneered by producer Val Lewton in the 1940s. But there were young people all over the theatre who were very scared.

Why? It may be precisely because the movie is not conventionally horrific and gruesome, in the manner of films like Halloween, Friday the 13th or Scream. Young audiences today are very blase about the blood-letting of special effects. They may not always know how the slaughter is done, but they take a high body count for granted. Whereas, this film creates a kind of dread or anxiety, that fear that something is watching us from the dark, that overlaps with all the standard tensions in 20-year-old life.

There's something else. The build-up for the movie's opening used the Internet very cleverly. Kids were set up to believe that three students really did vanish in the Maryland woods. The Blair Witch Project was presented as a documentary, raw footage in which people cracked up. And as the craze builds, more stuff is coming - a book, or a dossier, really - that all helps sustain the panic that this dark and its disaster are for real. You gotta see it.

`The Blair Witch Project' is released in Britain in the Autumn