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''Blair Witch'': Is the scare of the summer real?

A new TV documentary deepens the legend

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Michael Williams, The Blair Witch Project
Artisan Entertainment

In a summer when the most frightening thing has been Jar Jar Binks, it’s finally time to get creeped out with ”The Blair Witch Project,” a buzzed-about movie so chilling it makes ”I Know What You Did Last Summer” look like ”Summer of ’42.” ”Blair Witch” purports to be a documentary shot by three students who ventured into the woods to make a film about an evil spirit living there. The students were never seen again, but their scarifying videotapes were found a year later, and these are what the audience sees.

To get a preview of the film — which opens July 14th in New York, July 16th in L.A. and 10 other cities, and on July 30th everywhere else — you can tune into ”Curse of the Blair Witch,” a companion documentary that premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on the Sci-Fi Channel (and repeats throughout the month). But here’s something reassuring to know before you start sleeping with the lights on: Both the movie and TV special are fictional — all the parts are played by actors, and no one really died.

”We aren’t trying to pull a hoax here,” says Daniel Myrick, 35, who cowrote and codirected the movie and documentary with Eduardo Sanchez, his 30-year-old University of Central Florida film-school classmate. ”You go to our website or look at any of our other marketing and it looks and feels real, but every interview we’ve done we’ve told the process of how we made the movie. We walk the line (of fiction pretending to be fact) because a lot of people really want to go in not knowing for sure one way or another.”

The directors (and the three fellow UCF grads who coproduced the film) got ”Blair Witch” into last winter’s Sundance, and within four hours of an ashen-faced crowd stumbling out of its first screening, Artisan films had snapped it up for a reported $1-2 million. Buzz has surrounded Myrick and Sanchez ever since, and now every studio with a teen-slasher script is looking to nab these point men of petrifying — a wrongheaded move, considering ”Blair Witch” is terrifying because it’s the antithesis of a slasher movie: There are no visible attackers and only one instance of minimal gore, and it’s all shot on High-8 handheld cameras from the cast members’ points of view. It looks like it could be your own home movie, which is all the more reason to say, ”I’ll never go camping again.”

”Some of these (executives) are clueless,” says Myrick. ”I’m pretty damn sure they’re pulling horror scripts off their shelf that have been sitting there for 10 years, dusting these babies off, and saying, ‘Okay, these are our new horror guys, let’s throw our scripts at them and see what comes out of it.’ I think they look at us as hot horror flavors of the month, and it heightens their chance of getting their script made if they attach us to it.”

The team has told their agents to stop sending them screenplays for ”bad ‘Scream’ rip-offs,” and they are currently cowriting a comedy. While their dedication to not selling out seems gallant, they acknowledge that since Sundance it’s become increasingly difficult to remember their indie roots. ”It’s hard to keep it all in check when you’ve got people touting you as the next big thing,” says Myrick. ”We just have to keep saying, ‘Hey, we’re just dudes who play a lot of foosball and came up with this little film.”’