Bare Bones

Reviews of the latest films.
July 23 1999 9:30 PM

Bare Bones

The Blair Witch Project flays the horror genre--and the viewer; The Haunting is all flab.

The Blair Witch Project
Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Artisan Entertainment

The Haunting
Directed by Jan De Bont
DreamWorks SKG

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The Blair Witch Project demonstrates that there's nothing scarier than nothing. The movie has no ghosts or witches on display, and its lone bit of gore is a piece of cloth containing a mottle of indeterminate organic material. It has no surprises, either, since you know going in that the ending won't be happy. The movie opens with a placard declaring that three film students went into the woods near "Burkittsville, Maryland" to make a documentary and were never heard from again, and that their footage was discovered a year after their disappearance. The placard doesn't mention who edited the footage--the ghost of Hitchcock? Cassavetes?--but that's a minor point. I could tell you the story--give away every detail--and The Blair Witch Project would still freeze your blood. Working on a budget that's chump change and a script that's little more than a framework for actors' improvisations, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have harnessed the most irrational fears of every human alive. They have reanimated the genre not by adding to it but subtracting from it--by cooking it down to its bare bones and then rattling those bones like fiends.

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The first thing they've done is remove the omniscient point of view. With the important exception of that opening title card, there is no larger perspective. The film students--a woman, Heather Donahue, and two men, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard (the characters bear the actors' names)--tote their own video and movie cameras, so that we see what they see and no more. Actually, we see even less, since we lack their peripheral vision and are cruelly limited to whatever passes through their lenses. Thanks to first-rate sound equipment, though, we hear everything they hear--especially a snapping of branches in the dark outside their tent that escalates into an omnidirectional clatter. When they yell into the darkness ("Hello?"), the darkness remains dark. A light illuminates the foreground, but the blackness beyond that pool seems, if anything, blacker. There might be no more irrationally terrifying shot in the annals of film than the one in which the camera hurtles behind Heather--a hazy white streak in the center of the screen--amid crackling sounds as she throws a look into the trees and shrieks: "What is that? What the fuck is that?" We never see what the fuck that is. If we did, some part of us would probably relax, because it would look like a special effect. But no part of us is allowed to relax. Ever.

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I s The Blair Witch Project a work of "art"? Not by my definition. Art rarely tortures you so single-mindedly. After the first half-hour, in which the students interview Burkittsville residents about the history of the Blair Witch (one Elly Kedward, found guilty of sorcery in 1785 and lashed to a tree during a harsh winter), the remainder of the movie is their increasingly desperate odyssey through the woods. They trudge one way, double back, pore over maps and compasses, whine, trudge some more, come upon mysterious piles of rocks or bundled twigs, and whine even louder. The action unfolds in a season halfway between autumn and winter, and the washed-out tones suggest that the Blair Witch took the forest's colors with her when she died. The grueling monotony is broken only at night, when the students go into their tents and the sounds come again and the very celluloid seems to shiver with cold and fear. The camera twitches incessantly: The lone stationary shot is when Heather sobs an apology to her parents for having dreamed up the project, and the way she's framed and half-lighted she looks like Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera with nostril hair. I don't apply the adjective "visceral" casually: The shaky camera summons up our fight-or-flight responses. Leaving the screening, my wife was convinced she had food poisoning from an earlier meal; when we stopped and analyzed her symptoms, we realized that she had motion sickness. The movie had literally made her sick.

The power of that can't be slighted, however. I love horror pictures and am a tough scare, but I started having nightmares about The Blair Witch Project before I even saw it--solely on the basis of its preview. I slept even less after I did see it. When I caught an interview with the superbly nervy Heather Donahue on television, the first thing I thought was, "Thank God, she's alive." Then she said, "This movie must be working because people come up to me all the time and say, 'Thank God, you're alive.' " The other day an envelope arrived at my door with a bunch of sticks lashed together in the familiar form of the Blair Witch talisman. I rushed to the phone and called the movie's publicists to make sure this was a promotional gimmick. When they said yes, I started breathing again; otherwise, I might have called the police--or an exorcist.

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W hat is it about The Blair Witch Project that taps into such primal emotions? Consider its antithesis. The remake of The Haunting has the bad fortune to open in the same month, and what might have been dismissed as just a lame, overstuffed big-studio scare picture will now be held up as a counterexample. Robert Wise's 1963 original, based on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, is overrated, but it manages to evoke the eeriest aspect of Jackson's fiction: the way the characters' neuroses acquire an inexorable life of their own and threaten to eat them alive. Nothing much happens in the empty mansion, but when something does--for instance, a thunderous pounding on a pair of big doors, as if all the characters' accumulated nervous energies had been focused on one spot--the movie's reticence pays off like gangbusters (or ghostbusters). In the new version, directed by Jan De Bont (Speed, 1994; Twister, 1996), that pounding comes early and serves as an overture for a bunch of computer-generated special effects: ghosties that swirl around like Tinkerbell, statues that spring to life and grab people. Everything is exasperatingly, often laughably, overexplicit, and once a dread becomes material, a ghost story becomes a monster movie--a different, far less terrifying beast.

Here are sound effects so hammy that they might have been borrowed from one of those old haunted-house party albums. Doors don't creak, they CRRRREEEAAAKKK and then close with a reverberant KER-CHUNGGGGGG. From the second Liam Neeson and his subjects--Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, and Owen Wilson--set foot in the farcically garish Hill House, it's clear that Something Evil is watching them: You can tell because Something Evil respires so loudly that he's either Darth Vader or an asthmatic. By the time poor Taylor stands up to the big, bad ghost on behalf of a lot of little, good ghosts, people in the audience are holding onto their stomachs to keep from retching with laughter. Writing, directing, acting--this is one of the most maladroit ghost movies ever made.

But even if the script weren't so tin-eared and the direction so clunky, The Haunting still wouldn't come within screaming distance of The Blair Witch Project. The reason is philosophical. De Bont, a lavish materialist who thinks that movies can do anything if you throw enough money around, wants to scare you by showing you stuff. Myrick and Sanchez want to scare you by not showing you stuff--and by reminding you how much you can't see and will never know. With all those cameras onscreen, they've liberated horror from the realm of movies--from the realm of the light--and nestled it back into the dark where it was born.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.