ONE OF THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENTS OF LAST year was when the filming of The X-Files moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles. I say this not out of a sense of regional loyalty, but because the substance of the new stories moved from forest mode to desert mode. This is significant because forests are far more frightening, more menacing, more moody than desert areas. We never see what is trying to harm us when we are in the forest; we are surrounded by ominous noises, crackling branches, shaking bushes, but nothing is ever seen until the last moment.

We associate the desert with delirium, but the forest is a place for panic. Indeed, the word panic is derived from the name of the Greek god Pan, the God of the forest. And panic ("a sudden overpowering fright; unreasoning terror") is exactly what the stunning, extremely unsettling new film The Blair Witch Project is all about--panic charged by fear of the unseen, of unreason; the monster lurking behind the trees, the spirits among the leaves, the dead under the stones, the souls in the river.

The premise for the film is this: In 1994, while shooting a documentary on the myth of "The Blair Witch," three film students from Montgomery College mysteriously disappear in the woods. The missing trio includes director Heather Donahue (who, like the rest of the cast, uses her real name in the film), sound engineer Michael Williams, and cameraman Joshua Leonard. A year later, their Hi-8 video and CP-16 film cameras, along with a duffel bag full of footage, are found in the basement of an abandoned home. At the request of the families, two filmmakers, Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez, piece together the footage of the supernatural events that led up to their deaths in the woods.

The Blair Witch Project begins with the ordinary-looking filmmakers preparing to head into the woods early in the morning. First they conduct a few interviews in a nearby town, where the locals tell different versions of the ghost story. One woman says the ghost's feet never touch the ground; another says the ghost has hair all over its body. The young filmmakers then proceed into the woods, and eventually come across an old Indian burial ground. While filming the cemetery, they accidentally disturb one of the graves (a pile of pebbles). From then on, they're on a downward slope to hell, lost in the woods where everything that can go wrong does.

"We wanted to establish a sense of dread when the sun is going down every day," says Dan Myrick, who co-directed the film with Ed Sanchez, both of whom were chatting with me in their downtown hotel room. "Then you hear the crickets come up. These are just little cues that tell you now the night is coming and we are heading toward doom."

"When we came up with the idea for this film in 1993," says Ed Sanchez, "we had in mind one of those documentary-like horror films, like The Legend of Boggy Creek, or that show In Search Of... with Leonard Nimoy, which was really creepy because they said all their stories were true. We just figured that if we did a horror film which seemed real from beginning to end, it would be effective."

Indeed The Blair Witch Project is effective, not only because of the woods, but because the film seems real. Too real, even. This was the directors' main mission, to make the film as real as possible. "We created this world of mythology that surrounded everything about Blair," Myrick says. "We outlined every scene and plot line. Everything was predetermined for the actors, and then we had them ad-lib through this whole world on their own."

"This was crucial," Sanchez adds, "we wanted it to look real, so we directed from remote control. We were not there for most of the filming, and so when they went out into the woods, they didn't know how long they where going to be out there. All they knew was they were going to get lost, and some shit was going to happen. When they returned, they had 20 hours of film, and we edited it down to 87 minutes."

There is a wonderful line during the second half of the movie where one of the characters asks, "How can we get lost?" On the directors' part, I thought this was an admission of the great flaw of the film. True, the forest inspires a mood of fear, but this must be more atavistic than reasonable. Really, with cell phones and satellites, how can you get lost? "There is something keeping them in that area," Sanchez says, as if I missed the all-important point. "I mean the area is not very big, so there must be something supernatural going on. They are in the land of the lost."

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