By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated July 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Three student filmmakers hike into the woods of Maryland’s Black Hills to shoot a documentary about a witch who, legendarily, has killed children in the area with outstanding gruesomeness for more than two centuries. Heather (Heather Donahue), the director, is bossy and bullheaded; Josh (Joshua Leonard), the cinematographer, is slouchy and laconic; Mike (Michael Williams), the soundman, is the joker with the pop-cultural quips. (All three are templates for interns at EW — the kind of pups who will, mark my words, one day be running this magazine.)

The filmmakers are never heard from again.

Great setup.

The clever premise of the indie chiller The Blair Witch Project (which, what with the high-altitude setting and midnight scheduling, scared the snow boots off a lot of Sundance festival attendees last January but is not nearly so terrifying at sea level) is that what we are seeing is footage from the doomed project, discovered a year after the college kids vanished. We’re peeking, in effect, into a diary that is all the more harrowing as a last will and testament: We brace for a shriek- inducing climax Heather, Josh, and Mike couldn’t anticipate. And we watch with pleasurable, mounting anxiety as camaraderie crumbles into paranoia, panic overtakes camera technique, and fear explodes into the kind of hysteria the girls of Salem must have known back in the 17th century.

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, the young filmmakers who conceived this Project, are canny about any number of horror conventions, not least of which is that Scream and its descendants have used up irony as a sustainable attitude. They know, too, that our own sophistication about special effects has deadened the potency of on-screen gore. Today, when moviegoers know everything about everything (and can never unimagine, say, that Alien monster bursting from John Hurt’s chest), the only true fear lies in what’s not shown. (Hitchcock understood this better than anyone.)

But Myrick, Sanchez, and their fellow producers are also ahead of the pack in making effective use of the Internet for its promotional and paranoia-inducing properties. As Blairies swap theories and fears online, they also (ideally) generate box office interest and frighten each other silly with even more intricate horror scenarios, passed around among a community of website strangers. In the end — not that this will spoil anything — The Blair Witch Project leaves more questions than it answers. Including, What happened? As a horror picture, it may not be much more than a cheeky game, a novelty with the cool, blurry look of an avant-garde artifact. But as a manifestation of multimedia synergy, it’s pretty spooky. B

The Blair Witch Project

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