It's wholly fitting that "The Blair Witch Project" concerns itself with suburban mythology, as its own genesis is the stuff of hometown legend.
Produced by the Orlando-based Haxan Films, the terror opus has already seen its place cemented in Florida history. Screened at Sundance! Feted at Cannes! Picked up for national distribution in a megabucks deal! To supporters of Central Florida filmmaking, the movie's breakout success is a watershed of credibility that's been 10 years in coming -- the eagerly awaited end of a period that's seen the city's vaunted status as "the next Hollywood" defined by little more than an embarrassing spectacle of game shows and backlot tours.
So it's good for everybody, but is it any good? Although private showings were held during various stages of the editing process, this week's Florida Film Festival represents the first exposure of the film's celebrated final cut to a paying crowd of locals. Reputation's fine, but does the end result justify the hype?
Breathe easy. The finished product stands on its own as a clearly imagined work of shock fantasy. It's a nerve-splitting assault on our senses and sensibilities, one that's limited only by the self-imposed restrictions of its chosen format, never the talent of its creators.
Reality programming of a different stripe, "Blair Witch" is composed of fictional "found footage" allegedly left behind by a trio of college documentarists. The images they've shot are our record of the amateur camera team's trip into the woods of Maryland, where they attempt to uncover the truth behind a generations-old scare tale.
We watch as a bemused townie mutters his contempt for these durn fool kids. Don't they know there's something weirdly evil going on in that forest? Do they think all of those stories of childnapping and witchcraft are idle chatter? Haven't they watched enough episodes of "Scooby Doo" to know that warnings of supernatural activity should never be ignored?
Its cartoon-bred familiarity established, the film slyly slides into psychodrama as the three become hopelessly lost in the great outdoors. Someone -- or something -- is following them, making eerie noises in the night and defiling their campgrounds as they sleep.
The stranded lensmen devolve into a state of animal panic, their heavy, labored breathing filling the soundtrack. The mood of unsettling, claustrophobic dread is further buoyed by cinematography that's authentically desperate in its look and feel, putting "Blair Witch" head and shoulders above the usual faux immediacy of the "you-are-there" school of docu-fiction. All but the most bullet-proof audiences can expect to endure full-blown anxiety attacks.
As the control-freak leader of the ill-fated band, Heather Donahue is believably obsessed with capturing every possible minute of their nightmare journey on film. Still, we know that the story's final moments won't be a totally satisfying wrap-up. Coming face-to-face with the bogeyman of her darkest imaginings, even the most committed cinematographer is bound to suddenly lose interest in keeping the camera rolling.
Instead, we're presented with a denouement whose mysterious abruptness appears tailor-made to inspire endless dorm-room debate. Unlike the makers of last year's "The Last Broadcast" -- who had to abandon the rules of verité to bring their remarkably similar material to a tidy conclusion -- the Haxan boys are happy to play to tie when an honest win is out of the question.
One unavoidable compromise isn't enough to deny "Blair Witch" its rightful kudos as a landmark of low-budget horror (the original "Night of the Living Dead" is among its influential antecedents). More important, its marriage of profile with payoff is all but certain to put Central Florida on the nation's filmic radar as never before.
That agenda is clear in one of the script's wittier snatches of dialogue -- one that can't have been fully appreciated by audiences in Utah or France. Awakening to find their camp site festooned with paganistic totems, the spooked filmmakers attempt to rationalize their newly creepy surroundings. They must be witnessing the aftermath of a redneck prank, one reasons.
"No redneck is that creative!" another thunders in response.
Rednecks not creative? Us? "Blair Witch" is that theory exploded. A ladder has been dropped to the next level of Florida filmcraft, and the "Witch" way is up.