Most horror films are spectacles of excess, based on special effects and gross-out gore. An anachronistic few subscribe to the countertradition of psychological suggestion, identified with the cycle of literate low-budget thrillers produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s. The Blair Witch Project has been strenuously promoted over cyberspace and cable but this clever, creepy indie is a throwback— inexpensively produced and suffused with the subtle Lewtonian atmospherics of B movies like Return of the Cat People or I Walked With a Zombie.
Written and directed by Florida-based neophytes Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, The Blair Witch Project is a priori conceptual. It purports to be a sort of found actuality—the raw footage shot by a trio of Maryland film students who, making a documentary on a spooky local legend, ventured into the Black Hills Forest in October 1994 and were never seen again. The opening title explains that the students’ stock and equipment were recovered a year after their disappearance; thus, however immediate, the material is shadowed with foreboding—cast as the artifact of a lost expedition to the South Pole, or worse.
Although the movie’s complicated back story—vastly elaborated upon on its Web site—concerns an instance of colonial witchcraft and a century of intermittent child disappearances and gruesome murders, Blair Witch is shot first-person and in artless “vérité” that seems beyond handheld. (Apparently some who saw Blair Witch at Sundance were convinced that they were watching the real thing.) By way of introduction, the project’s director, Heather (Heather Donahue), and her crew, the high-strung camera operator Josh (Joshua Leonard) and doofus soundman Mike (Michael Williams), playfully document themselves clowning around their motel room and visiting a supermarket to squeeze the Halloween marshmallows. They shoot an introduction in a graveyard, interview a few locals, and then plunge into the autumn woods.
Blair Witch makes much of its innocent larkiness. True Americans, the protagonists have no sense of an implacable past or a dreadful fate. They spook one another with recollections of Deliverance and campfire accounts of weird noises in the night. “What killed this dead mouse? Was it witchcraft?” Heather asks her Hi-8 video camera. (A true obsessive, she’s making a documentary of her own documentary.) “Witches in days gone by were roasted—just like my Vienna sausage.” Brash, nervous, constantly rapping, Heather is a type familiar to anyone who has served time in film school. Before long, however, the jokes are wearing thin. Searching for an abandoned cemetery in the woods, the trio find instead sinister rock cairns surrounding their tent and realize that they are no longer hunting but hunted.
A decade ago, Patrick Duncan’s Vietnam War indie, 84 Charlie MoPic, used a similar first-person camera—held in that case by a combat newsreel photographer—to tell the tale of a lost patrol. The strategy was intriguing but problematic. The viewer spent too much time wondering why the cameraman never had to change the magazine or just how many rolls of film he was carrying. The Blair Witch Project may not push its own formal conceit as far as it might—it doesn’t get into how the footage was supposedly assembled—but it’s a more successful tour de force. Unlike Charlie MoPic (or Hollywood’s once-famous experiment in subjectivity The Lady in the Lake, where the camera represented the detective-hero’s point of view), Blair Witch manages to involve the spectator in its protagonists’ psychology.
As the filmmakers venture deeper into the woods, they lose first their map and then their minds—wandering in circles and stumbling upon a voodoo grove with strange-fruit fetishes dangling from the trees. (“This is no redneck,” one yelps. “No redneck is this creative.”) The acting is as impeccable as the nightmare is compelling—in fact, most of the dialogue was improvised and all of the movie was shot by the performers. Personality disintegration notwithstanding, The Blair Witch Project is made without F/X although, of course, the movie apparatus is itself the greatest special-effects generator of all. The movie casts its spell through the most economical means while leaving the sly suggestion that the project’s real witch might be the driven director, Heather.
“I don’t want to go cheesy,” the bossy auteur announces at the onset and, although the real filmmakers, Myrick and Sanchez, are sometimes obliged to stretch for ways to insure that their increasingly terrorized characters keep filming, Blair Witch never does betray Heather’s aesthetic. Paranoid, hysterical, and programmatically subjective, the movie is in every sense a psychological thriller. Although the payoff is ambiguous, the experience remains in the mind. It’s an absolutely restrained and truly frightening movie. As Heather puts it, “I’m scared to open my eyes and I’m scared to close them.”
Another paragon of B-movie virtue, Takeshi Kitano’s first feature, Violent Cop, has finally gone into U.S. distribution a decade after it was released in Japan. With Fireworks and Sonatine both shown theatrically last year, local audiences should be more than prepared for this oddball, brutal policier, although it’s intriguing to wonder what Kitano’s Japanese fans initially made of his jolting screen debut—the popular stand-up comedian upped his aggression quotient drastically here by casting himself as a deadpan Dirty Harry.
No less eccentric than its successors, Violent Cop features Kitano beating drug-dealer butt and stepping on authority’s toes to the accompaniment of an infectious theme that reconfigures a melancholy Eric Satie refrain into something more appropriate to the video game Tetris. Impassive, slightly quizzical, smiling no more than once or twice during the whole movie, the star is most expressive when socking someone. Kitano’s put-upon police officer never misses an opportunity to stomp a suspect—even kicking his own partner when he gets in the way. “You’re violently wild and stupid,” the cop’s superior explains, but departmental discipline has no effect; the movie’s Japanese title translates as Warning: This Man Is Dangerous.
Not unlike Toshiro Mifune (the last Japanese action star to intrude on American consciousness), Kitano uses a distinctive body language to telegraph his emotions. But where the young Mifune was eloquently hyperkinetic, middle-aged Kitano is a rock of concentration in a treacherous world. Violent Cop, which features no guns in its first half, is a film of pummeling physicality—it’s been suggested that it recreates the distinctive rhythm of Kitano’s heavy, hunched-over, off-kilter stride, as well as his surprise eruptions.
The central set piece is a botched drug bust in which the suspect takes out three detectives, decks a fourth in a slo-mo punch-out, then (to the accompaniment of some unlikely cocktail jazz) sprints through an unheeding workaday neighborhood, lethal baseball bat in hand. The prolonged, naturalistically grueling pursuit ends with Kitano ramming the perp with his squad car. Still, Kitano—who even in his first film is a wonderfully classical director—more typically uses long shots to muffle or defamiliarize mayhem. What’s blatant is the sense of his “honest” rage at having to live amid cowardice and corruption.