Ty Burr
October 26, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Blair Witch Project

Current Status
In Season
Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael Williams
Horror, Mystery and Thriller

We gave it a B+

”Hype Kills.”

Maybe, just maybe, if that slogan had been plastered, guerrilla-style, onto every poster, TV spot, and trailer for The Blair Witch Project — yea, unto the very website itself — a lot of people would have headed into multiplexes with the correct frame of reference last summer. But it wasn’t, and why should it have been?

Since distributor Artisan Entertainment has pulled down $140 million so far in theatrical grosses — the biggest box office take ever for an independent film, let alone a flyspeck cheapie that buzzed in from nowhere — and since filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wound up on the covers of Time and Newsweek, wouldn’t you say that the hype had the desired effect? So what if it killed the experience of watching their movie?

Admit it, there was no bigger deflation this summer than paying to see what was (depending on what you read, heard, surfed, or believed) either the scariest film since ”The Exorcist” or Actual Video Footage of Supernatural Terror, and finding, instead, this little bitsy…thing. Probably the only place where ”Blair Witch” went over as intended was at ground zero — the Sundance Film Festival — where the frosty audience went in expecting another coy indie flick and got coldcocked by a grainy, suggestive chiller.

After that, the black cat was out of the bag. There was no way for many people to watch the movie in a crowded theater without sensing cynical disappointment hopscotching from row to row. Even the budget became a liability: How seriously can you take a film that doesn’t even pay off with a money shot of the witch? As one senior member of this magazine’s editorial staff was wont to declare, mocking ”Blair Witch”’s show-no-evil aesthetic: ”Look out! It’s a bunch of sticks!”

You could argue that ”The Blair Witch Project” ticked so many people off because it dared to be different. You might opine that the rigid explicitness of modern horror, as dictated in films from ”Psycho” to ”Scream,” has made audiences callous to subtlety. YOU can say those things. I’ll just say that ”Blair Witch” is one of the best creepy campfire stories ever made, and that the only way to appreciate it as such is to watch it on a television. At home. With the lights out.

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