Ty Burr explains how one little movie has returned the ''indie'' to independent films

By Ty Burr
Updated August 04, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Blair Witch Project

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”The Blair Witch Project” teaches Hollywood an important lesson

”The Blair Witch Project” was No. 2 at the box office last weekend. When it goes into even more theaters on Friday, it will probably come out at No. 1.

And that, my friends, represents the biggest earthquake to hit Hollywood in decades.

The fact that this piddly little indie freak show outgrossed a honking white elephant like ”The Haunting” pretty much rips the moorings out of every business tenet the film industry holds dear. There are no stars. There are no special effects. The dialogue has been improvised, and you’ll need to take Dramamine to deal with the camera work. Most mind-bendingly counterintuitive of all — at least, to the Tinseltown way of thinking — there’s no fricking monster.As one of this magazine’s editors says, nervously mocking ”Blair”’s show-no-evil stance: ”Watch out! It’s a bunch of sticks!”

None of it matters, because this movie is all anyone in a certain audience wants to see, and that audience is far, far larger than Hollywood, in its self-protective cynicism, has wanted to admit until now.

In other words, it takes something like ”Blair Witch Project” to remind us just exactly what the words independent moviemean. They don’t mean anything made by Miramax and starring Gwynnie Paltrow in a corset. They don’t mean any movie where Eric Stoltz and a bunch of goateed geeks bang their heads against the concept of women. They don’t mean any Quentin Tarantino rip-off, including the ones made by Quentin Tarantino.

No, what independent moviemeans — or used to mean, and now means again — is filmmaking utterly removed from the businessof filmmaking. Something put on celluloid because some people had a good idea and borrowed some money and scammed some cameras and just did the damn thing. Not because it would lead to a development deal at Fox, but because they just had to see it up on a screen.

I’m not making any claims for ”Blair Witch” as art. It’s a great gimmick that follows through on its premise in a way that basically honors the audience’s intelligence and short-circuits knee-jerk criticism from trendoids like us here at EW. And as a pop-culture event it marks the maturation of the Internet as a full partner in not only the marketing of a film but in the creation of its narrative whole (”Blair”’s creepy enough, but the back-story materials posted at the film’s website both set you up for the dread and deepen it).

In fact, the Web is what makes ”Blair” different from previous groundbreaking horror films from outside the studio system — movies like ”Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” ”Night of the Living Dead,” and so on. Those were midnight cult hits that never stood a chance of cracking the weekend box office charts. Their audience grew slowly, by word of mouth, not by click of mouse. The only film I can think of that turned the values of Hollywood so upside down so quickly is 1969’s ”Easy Rider” — a cheap hippie biker flick (whose cast, admittedly, held considerable counterculture cachet) that raked in the bucks and created a movie ”youth market” overnight.

The result, of course, was a torrent of really, really bad hippie flicks, not to mention a lot of studio executives wearing Nehru jackets. And you can bet that Hollywood types will try to co-opt the ”Blair Witch” wave, too, by throwing money at filmmakers from outside the L.A./N.Y. power axis, by beefing up their websites, and by praying.

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This is nothing new. In fact, it’s the history of our culture to receive regular infusions of vitality and then dilute them through packaging and overkill (See: Elvis, punk rock, ”Scream”). ”Blair Witch”’s distributor, Artisan, has already indicated that at least one sequel will be made. And now that the directors can afford blood squibs, bladder effects, and computer-generated demons, do you really think they won’t use them?

The Blair Witch Project

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