Kristen Baldwin
July 19, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”The Blair Witch Project” is a horror hit

Ok, so now that ”The Blair Witch Project” has finally hit the theaters, it’s only a matter of minutes before the inevitable naysayers begin griping, ”Dude, that movie was totally NOT scary.” I’m here to tell you, don’t believe the ”Don’t believe the hype” backlash when it happens. ”The Blair Witch Project” is, hands down, the most frightening movie I have ever seen.

I am by no means a scary-movie wuss. If it stars Freddy, Jason, Buffalo Bill, or a big-ass shark, I’ll be the first one in line at the theater. So when I heard about how ”Blair Witch” scared the snowpants off Sundance audiences, I hurried to an advance screening, eagerly awaiting a good old fashioned wig-out. Now, more than seven nights of unsettled sleep later, I’m paying for my horror-movie hubris.

The reason ”Blair Witch” is so scary is not because it’s gory (there’s barely any blood) or because it’s real (it’s not). Instead, the scare comes from the film’s mock-documentary format, supposedly comprised of first-person footage left behind by three film students who disappeared in the Maryland woods. Most of what we see is what Heather, the lead filmmaker, views through her video camera as the trio gets more and more lost, tired, hungry, terrified — all the while being harassed by unseen evils in the pitch-black night. After 90 minutes of this gut-churning point-of-view transference, I felt as exhausted, tense, and borderline hysterical as the characters.

Then there’s the whole reality factor. Lots has been made of the ”is it or isn’t it?” question, but rest assured: The entire Blair Witch legend is a complete (though incredibly well-crafted) fiction, and the people on the screen are actors — no matter what your best friend says he read on the Net. But it doesn’t matter — in fact, it made the movie even more terrifying for me. I knew going in how the whole film had been constructed. The three actors (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams) followed a prescribed path in a Maryland state park while being shadowed by filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez; they improvised all their scenes after receiving basic instructions via daily notes from the directors. But because they were kept primarily in the dark (so to speak), the stars didn’t have to feign any fear when, for example, the eerie noises of twigs breaking and children laughing outside of their tent jarred them awake in the middle of the night. As Heather the character ran from her tent, shrieking ”What the f— was that? WHAT THE F— WAS THAT?” you know Heather the actress really, really wanted to know the answer. By the end of ”Blair Witch,” Donahue, Leonard, and Williams look absolutely traumatized, and is there anything more visceral and unsettling than watching real people exhibit real terror?

Even an obviously choreographed scene — the final, chaotic climax in an abandoned house — doesn’t detract from the effect of this Method madness. While the characters’ enemy (or enemies) remains unseen and the ”resolution” is nothing if not foggy, the scene exemplifies what ”Blair Witch” does best: Asking the question ”Hey, do you want to see something really scary?” and letting your mind provide the example.

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