Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project represents the ultimate triumph of the Sundance scam: Make a heartless home movie, get enough critics to blurb in near unison “scary,” and watch the suckers flock to be fleeced. This fictional documentary within a pseudo-documentary form may be the most overrated, under-financed piece of film to come down the
pike in a long time. Incidentally, when did “scary” become the highest commercial accolade a movie could receive? Not that The Blair Witch Project struck me as particularly scary even by infantile standards. Where is the suspense? Where is the involvement? Where is the identification? We know from a printed foreword that the three young film-makers are doomed, and by the time I got to know them a little I didn’t much care what happened to them.
In accordance with the coy nomenclature of this faux-found footage, the actors and the characters have the same first names. Thus Heather Donahue plays and is Heather, the domineering young woman director of the trio. Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard play Mike and Josh, Heather’s goofily surly helpmates. I didn’t catch what exactly the two guys did in the way of technical functions, but they never seemed too impressed with Heather’s capabilities, which makes one wonder why they trusted her to lead them into an unknown forest, all three of them carrying backpacks so heavy and bulky that Hannibal would have hesitated loading them on his elephants when he was crossing the Alps toward Rome.
Go back! I kept saying to myself. Go back! But Heather, the bitch, was in no mood to listen. She thought she knew everything. You could tell from the early on-camera interviews she arranges with a variety of local yokels. Her broadly supercilious tone makes it clear that she considers herself superior to everyone around her, and that includes Mike and Josh, whom she treats as her slow-witted slaves.
Heather’s unsympathetic smugness from the outset, strangely, is what has made the movie such a big hit with audiences and critics. I’m willing to bet anything that if the movie had been simply about three guys lost in the woods, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere critically or commercially. The antifeminist-backlash spectacle of a pushy female leading two comparatively inoffensive males to be slaughtered by persons unknown and unseen gives the audience a ready-made scapegoat for the disaster. I was struck also by the complete absence of any erotic tension or fraternal friendliness between the guys and the girl even before the three fools are frightened out of their wits by strange wooden markers and burial mounds of carefully arranged stones.
All the while I kept wondering why they started out on this silly project in the first place. Indeed, I was so detached from the mission that I began noticing things that didn’t make sense in the context of the sheer terror of the experience. Why do they keep lugging around their backpacks long after it becomes clear that they should be running for their lives? Yet the filmmakers do deserve credit for a clever image in the last 10 seconds that at least works poetically, but that is not nearly enough for all the low-budget, leave-it-to-the-audience’s-imagination pretentiousness that precedes it. I was reminded of nothing so much as the low-budget, cat-people-in-total-darkness shenanigans of producer Kirk Douglas and director Barry Sullivan in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) from a studio-savvy screenplay by Charles Schnee. Actually, Heather’s camcorder-run-amok antics makes her even more irritating to a viewer forced to look at seemingly endless dead footage of trees and shrubbery.
I must confess that from the age of 5 I cannot remember ever wanting to be scared by a movie. Moved, yes. Amused, yes. Thrilled, yes. Turned on, yes. But scared, never. These days I get my fill of fear and horror by reading the daily obituaries in The New York Times . Still, there have been a few instances of my being vicariously scared despite my well-developed distancing defenses. (It’s only a movie, Andrew.) When I saw Psycho (1960) on the first day of its theatrical release without any advance buzz or screenings, the shower scene made me scream; it confirmed for me my mother complex. How could she go that far to complicate my already messed-up sex life? As a consequence, Psycho , for all its formal perfection as an insightful work of art, has never come close to being my favorite Hitchcock film, ranking far below Vertigo (1958), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946) and Rear Window (1954).
After Psycho , for me the only truly frightening premise for a horror film is to be found in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Why? Because dreams are among the few things we can never control in our lives, and the idea that our dreams can invade our existence with homicidal impunity constitutes a waking nightmare.
But the spectacle of three film-student types traipsing off cluelessly into an unfamiliar forest with a reported history of gruesome violence is just plain stupid. And since you never really get to know these lambs led to slaughter, it is as if you were ghoulishly watching a horrible automobile accident from a safe vantage point. There is more than a trace of banal horror movie trickery involved in getting the audience agitated by the hysterical screaming of a female character too full of guilt and shame over her fatal incompetence for us to identify in any way with her plight. This is what I didn’t like about the climax of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), with weak-hearted Vera Clouzot screaming up a storm to cue and amplify the audience reaction.
By now the inescapable triumph of evil and just plain nastiness has become commonplace in American movies. Young people, particularly, seem to be drawn to the most mindlessly nihilistic messages in movies. I am not sure why, and I have long ago stopped worrying about it. As it is, I find The Blair Witch Project much less hateful than Arlington Road with its more expert projection of a satanically debilitating paranoia. But I don’t give The Blair Witch Project extra points for being so cheaply made. Many of my esteemed colleagues have chosen to use this unexpected money-maker as a club to beat the overpriced, overgadgety, overdigitalized, and overhyped mainstream turkeys gobbling up the multiplexes. Emotional emptiness, unfortunately, is unacceptable in a movie, whatever its budget.
Martin and Murphy Mock Hollywood and Vice Versa
Frank Oz’s Bowfinger , from a screenplay by Steve Martin, takes a stab at synergizing the talents of two of the funniest men in showbiz, but the union of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy does not so much multiply the mirth as fractionate it, not because of any lack of chemistry between these two comic talents, but because the idea of doing a parody of today’s Hollywood movie-making is self-defeating. A more challenging trick would be to make a movie taking today’s Hollywood at all seriously.
Even so, Mr. Martin’s screenplay is surprisingly heavy-handed with the subject at hand. I say surprisingly because Mr. Martin’s previous collaborations with director Oz- Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) , Housesitter (1992)-were subtler and sweeter comic confections than they were given credit for being at the time. Bowfinger , by contrast, though not mean-spirited, never quite achieves enough credibility to justify the strenuousness of the physical maneuvers necessary to show a movie being shot with an action star unaware that he is in the cast.
Mr. Martin as Bobby Bowfinger, down-at-the-heels producer-director of the barely breathing Bowfinger International, mostly a figment of his answering machine’s imagination, thinks he has a winner in a sci-fi aliens script written by an Iranian-American accountant, and entitled Chubby Rain since the aliens invade the earth as particularly portly raindrops. There is enough whimsy in this one conceit to sink an aircraft carrier in the Nimitz class. Every time the title is repeated in any form, the whole cast of woeful wannabes limps along behind it.
Mr. Murphy in the dual role of paranoid action star Kit Ramsey, and his more sweet-tempered non-celebrity brother Jiff,
generates some Jekyll-and-Hyde merriment with his undeniable mimetic gifts. The very powerful screen presences of Robert Downey Jr. as Jerry Renfro, a coldhearted Hollywood power broker, and Terence Stamp as a sinister cult leader, are insufficiently utilized to make much impact. Similarly, Christine Baranski’s comic flair begins to wheeze from the excesses of
her self-caricature as a Norma Desmond without the oil wells. Heather Graham as Daisy, the opportunistic small-town ingénue sleeping her way to the top, is too relentlessly one-note in her characterization. The result is painlessly disappointing, but the Republic will survive.
Betting on Dostoyevsky
Karoly Makk’s The Gambler , from a screenplay by Katharine Ogden and Charles Cohen and Nick Dear, is well worth seeing for its gritty homage to both the genius and the ruinous gambling obsession of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881). The incomparable Michael Gambon as a full-throttle Dostoyevsky is alone worth the price of admission for his projection of the author’s gift of ironic alertness to the lies his characters and acquaintances keep telling themselves. The rest is bits and pieces that are more interesting as period background than as dramatic entertainment.
Mr. Gambon is ably supported by Jodhi May as Anna Snitkina, one of Russia’s first stenographers, the author’s muse, and his final companion; Polly Walker as Polina, his ever-tormenting temptress, and Dominic West as Aleksei, the novelist’s fictional alter ego at the gambling tables. Luise Rainer, who won two consecutive Academy Awards, returns to the big screen with the juicy role of the self-destructive grandmother, and gives it all her supercharged Viennese bravura of so many decades ago.
The Gambler , like Shakespeare in Love , continues the welcome trend of honoring great cultural figures as a counterpoint to the more fashionable worship of depravity and insanity.