Hell's Bells

The scariest film of the year, hoax or not, cost about as much to make and promote as a used car.

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The Blair Witch Project was unveiled under ideal circumstances--at midnight, high in the mountains of Utah, to an audience of dying-to-discover-the-next-hit-indie-pic Sundance festgoers.

Shot on a used-car budget, it is hardly your ordinary horror movie--there's no teen-slasher psycho, no tricky morphing. Just the primal creepiness of something lurking out there that could burrow under your skin and feed. But that was enough for the Sundance herd, who fled the screening in a jittery rush and heralded the fright flick with a righteous buzz.

Blair Witch was made by Florida-based cowriters/directors/ editors Eduardo Sanchez, 30, and Daniel Myrick, 35, who've been slaving away for years on the edges of the Industry, shooting videos and commercials. "We've had our little successes and our big failures," says Sanchez, "but this is the first film that's been sold. And it was a complete experiment." A mock documentary, the "experiment" takes off from a local legend about a witch that haunts a hunk of Maryland forest near where Sanchez grew up.

Composed mainly of panicky footage from a hapless three-person filmmaking team that we see getting lost in the woods and then becoming seriously spooked by sounds in the pitchblack around them, it succeeds--like The Innocents, Rosemary's Baby and Carnival of Souls before it--on the knowledge that there may be nothing scarier than what lies just beyond our field of vision.

"We wanted to go after ultimate realism," Sanchez says, explaining the film's mockumentary style. "So we just gave the actors an outline and let them improv. We decided, all right, we're shooting this thing in a real-time format, eight straight days in the woods, let's set it up so we don't have to interact with the actors and just see what happens. Daniel and I would go home and sleep occasionally, but we were actually making the film 24 hours a day--we'd wake up at three in the morning, walk out into the woods and scare the hell out of them."

It's debatable whether the sounds of snapping twigs can compete with millions of bucks' worth of digital tricks for moviegoer attention, but these guys have already one-upped their peers. So what will the Industry do with these two purveyors of what is, really, an accomplished stunt? "We've definitely been getting our fair share of free lunches and had a lot of Scream rehashes thrown at us," Myrick says. "We're 'horror guys' now. It's not a bad problem to have. But our next thing is a comedy--the most politically incorrect movie imaginable."

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Michael Atkinson



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