and Daniel Myrick

What scares you? To judge from most American horror movies, the lineup should include serial killers, high school kids in costume-shop masks, sharks and other deep-sea beasties, the campy undead of teen slasher films, and the traditional undead—vampires, ghosts, mummies, wolfmen, scientific aberrations. But the worst fear—the real bone-chilling, mind-warping heebie-jeebies—comes from simply not knowing. It is this fear that filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick exploit in their much-hyped low-budget feature debut, The Blair Witch Project.

The film’s premise is fiendishly simple, its execution as shapely, evocative, and fat-free as a bone carving. Three film students (fictional) go into the Maryland woods to film some footage for a documentary on the local “Blair Witch legend” (also fictional), a mishmash of backwoods lore, child-killing scandal, and reports from a mysterious lost 18th-century book; the kids are never heard from again. One year later, their film cans are unearthed from beneath an abandoned house. This film is, purportedly, the result. Aside from approximately chronological interweaving of two separate cameras’ footage, Sanchez and Myrick never cheat; we only see what the kids have shot, a maddening, evocative jumble of jittery pans and lengthy, optimistic close-ups.

Bullheaded director Heather (Heather Donahue) and her friend, easygoing Josh (Joshua Leonard), pick up Mike (Michael Williams), the sullen cameraman they’ve hired, and proceed northward for a trip planned to last several days. The feeling is giddy with expectation; Heather talks and jokes almost nonstop with a high-strung self-consciousness that could become annoying if one were to become, say, lost in the woods with her for a long time. As first-time documentary work by eager, naive, touchingly serious students, the early footage is priceless—they interview local convenience-store clerks, fishermen, and a purported witness to the witch’s appearance, and Heather settles into a clearing to narrate her intro with fresh-faced pompousness.

Once in the woods, Heather insists on finding an ancient cemetery where they’ve been obscurely promised excellent footage. Bantering easily, the three students cross streams, check the map, and search for landmarks. After a messy delay, they find the cemetery—it’s an awful place, where rustic twig figures in human shapes dangle from trees, and seven small piles of rocks hint horribly at the fate of the seven children who were murdered nearby.

As the threesome marches desolately back, their hike begins to unravel. They are lost, or probably lost—Heather insists she knows the way—and their humorous verbal tennis matches turn into a series of bitter accusations. Each night they are awaked by a terrifying sound, which only they can hear—the audience hears a repeated crack-crack, like the breaking of far-off branches—and dash from the tent to film, stumbling through the poor light. Each morning, twig figures dangle from nearby branches—which, they tell themselves, must have been there the night before. When, one morning, Heather finds small piles of rocks outside the tent and muses, “There are three of them,” the audience howls with fearful laughter.

Sanchez and Myrick keep the pressure on by scripting increasingly menacing turns of events—the fictional filmmakers arrive on the same side of a stream they have crossed earlier (a horror that, like half in this film, the audience notices before they do); the night sounds grow closer; one member of the party loses his mind and destroys the map. Like scorpions in a jar, they turn on each other; nothing physically harmful has happened to these kids except fuzzy teeth and poor nutrition, but their mental disintegration is complete. There’s real fear in the actors’ voices—determined Heather follows up every hoot and moan by running out of the tent with her camera; one of Josh’s most reasonable moments occurs when he shrieks, “Are you not scared enough?” (Sanchez and Myrick kept them on their toes, offering dialogue suggestions for each character, not to be shared with the others, and large plot hints but no actual script; the actors really didn’t know what they were in for.) After one particularly harrowing night, Joshua disappears. A grisly packet wrapped in his torn shirt waits outside the tent flap. The next night, he starts calling to them….

As the film’s publicity has germinated between winning the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes and its formal release, it has developed a multimedia matrix of tie-ins—there are a fancy Web site with “Heather’s diary” entries, police photos, unseen footage, and elaborate backstory; a TV special with no real purpose; and stunt print coverage like Premiere’s camping trip with the film’s principals, built and reported in the film’s faux-documentary style, with enigmatic Bad Shit happening along the way. For a film with the budget of a rogue can-collector’s annual salary, naturally a McDonald’s sponsorship is out of the question, but the relentless insistence that this stuff is really eerie, really really eerie—whoooo!—is growing tiresome. (That said, a disclosure: Since the first screening of this film my precious movie-notes pad has gone missing, I swear, along with the elaborate press kit which I kept right here in my press-kit drawer.) What Sanchez and Myrick have made is a film, a piece of art that should and does stand on its own as a discrete and jewel-like work that answers exactly as much as it needs to to be effective. Skip the Web site pictures of sheriff deputies puzzling over Josh’s abandoned car—we can imagine what the fallout was like—and watch the film, if you dare.

The Muppets can’t make a really crapola movie—although Muppet Treasure Island came close—because they’re Muppets. Their strong personalities and the self-contained microcosm of a wacked-out global village they represent make for too many rich scenarios, exploited to excellent advantage in The Great Muppet Caper and the underrated but fine Muppet Christmas Carol. The latest Henson studio offering, Muppets From Space, retains the cloth crew’s signature humor—built around the rainbow of bizarre personalities and jokes that refuse to pander to kiddies—but the heavy-handed message and too-frequent interaction with human actors add an unpleasant simpering tone.

Utilizing a soundtrack of party-funk ’70s hits, the film opens on the splendid Victorian house that harbors the entire Muppet extended family. To the tune of “Brick House,” the beasts awaken (each in his own style), shower (prim Fozzie Bear in yellow slicker and hat), brush teeth—those who have some, anyway—and gather for breakfast. But all is not sunshine and lily pads for the faux-fur set; Kermit can hardly keep the big old house running, and beaky creature Gonzo is becoming increasingly restless with his isolated state. He peruses a mantlepiece cluttered with photos of his pals—Piggy among family, the penguins en masse, Kermit with his fellow greenies. Gonzo’s photo is a hilarious long shot of an overcast beach, the tiny Gonzo standing alone in the far distance.

When Gonzo learns through his cereal (“Kap’n Alphabet”) and other spurious means that he is the lone Earthbound citizen of an entire Gonzo planet, the other Muppets react with fitting scorn. Soon Gonzo’s wearing foil suits and following the bizarre orders transmitted by the mothership; he hopes to meet creatures like himself. The film’s message is valuable for any kid who feels like an outsider—meaning, at some point or other, every kid—and especially intimate for adoptees. Impressively, the script acknowledges another minority group—”It’s not like I had a choice about [being an alien],” Gonzo tells Kermit. “And I’ve always had alien tendencies.” (Maybe he should talk with Bert and Ernie.)

The filmmakers lose their way with the bulk of the plot, which involves Gonzo’s being kidnapped by an evil alien-watch organization headed by villain K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), and the other Muppets’ attempts to break him out before his brains are sucked out of his head in the name of research. The action is frenzied but static, and the two or three simple plot lines get tangled and eventually lost—wasn’t Miss Piggy always pretty grating? The freshest blood belongs to the imperious shrimp (“Ah em a Keeng Prawn!”) Pepe, who is supposed to be Spanish-speaking but sneers and shrugs in an impeccable Gallic accent. When they all shuffle seaward for the climax, where the mothership is to land, the film simply dies—the beach is crowded with moronically mugging extras playing human UFO crazies; it looks like a dress rehearsal for a junior high production of Godspell. If I never have to see another pair of rainbow novelty socks again, it’ll be too soon. CP