The problem with The Blair Witch Project is that you already know far too much about it. What started out as an obscure micro-budget indie that unnerved a few journalists at Sundance and Cannes has defied all logic by mutating into a $130-million box-office gorilla, fuelled by internet hysteria and the hottest word-of-mouth since the original Star Wars.
But take our word - - if you have any intention whatsoever of seeing this eerie little mind-bender, stop reading right now and don't return to this page until you have. Because The Blair Witch Project's strength is also its most glaring weakness: namely, it is played out on such a small, intimate scale, with none of the gory frills or bombastic artifice of your average Hollywood frightfest, that knowing anything about it can only detract from its irrefutable capacity to disturb. If you sit back and allow it to lead you into its heart of darkness, then this intense and imaginative horror will snatch every assumption you've ever had about what makes a scary movie (and, indeed, what makes a movie scary), and leave them in a bloody, mangled heap on the side of the road. Don't go in expecting crimson-drenched gore or Scream-style self-referential irony. Do go in prepared for fear to manifest itself in far subtler and more harrowing ways.
The genius of Blair Witch lies in the Zen-like simplicity of its concept and the brilliance of its execution. The budget may have been severely restrictive ($22,000, according to the film-makers), allowing for zero sound effects, no musical score and minimal production design, but it also cranks up the "realism", enhanced by the shaky hand-held nature of the footage shot by the three campers.
It's a slow-burn build-up to terror, with folklore enthusiast Heather and her unconvinced collaborators being fed gruesome tales of torture and ritual murder by the locals, before trotting happily off into the hills to delve deeper into the myth of this unpleasant-sounding crone. But once in the wet, autumnal forest, enthusiasm and curiosity are progressively superseded by alarm and dread as, first they lose their way after stumbling upon some very odd discoveries, and then they begin to hear a bone-chilling racket in the night.
It's a hard act to pull off, but these three actors genuinely do appear to be scared out of their wits. Knowing their performances (and most of their dialogue) were improvised adds to, rather than detracts from, the acute sense of foreboding. Unlike most horror movies, where you can scream yourself silly at the brain-challenged cast - - ""Don't open the door!" - " - there is no relief here because they're doing exactly what you would do in the same situation. And in Heather, the narrator and ringleader, the film-makers have an unconventional but riveting protagonist, a bullheaded young woman whose fatal misjudgment gets them all lost but whose ultimate responsibility isn't tainted by the gender-bashing that can seep into the films of other, better-known horror operators. As Blair Witch moves inexorably towards its climax, it excels in playing upon the most primal of human emotions: fear, hunger and the despairing realisation that you are lost and you are going to die - - and there's nothing you can do to prevent it from happening. The most terrifying things are never seen, and that truth is stretched to the limits of endurance here (with only one minor display of blood that is fleeting in presence but devastating in impact).
At one point, Heather says: "It's all around us"." What she fails to add is that it's also inside her mind - - and that of the audience as well. And the unsettling final image, which ranks alongside the original The Vanishing for all-time creep-out factor, will stay with you for a long, long time to come. Just keep telling yourself: it's only a movie...