By now, the word legend applies as much to the making and marketing of this extraordinary film as to the fictional backstory that haunts its characters. But, in a way, it's a shame this micro-budgeted picture has received so much attention for its unusual production history and comes to the UK after success of blockbusting proportions in the US, since it's the sort of film that gets its best effects by creeping up on you unawares and whispering scary things in the dark.
Many classic literary ghost and horror stories pretend to be manuscripts left by mysteriously-disappeared narrators, who often let their pens drop in mid-sentence as the monster comes to get them. First-time writer-directors Myrick and Sanchez opt for an update of that format (perhaps influenced by the notorious Cannibal Holocaust and all those bogus In Search Of Bigfoot snorers that came out in the 70s), with film instead of a diary. An opening caption tells us that three wannabe filmmakers disappeared in October 1994 in the Black Hills Forest of Maryland and that all that was ever found of them were several cans of film, which have been edited together into the documentary we are being shown.
The first few minutes are disorienting, deliberately shot with all the shakiness of raw footage from some backpacker's video diary. The actors, using their real names, swiftly establish soon-to-fray relationships: Heather (Donahue) is the director willing to suffer for her art who doesn't care if others suffer less willingly with her, cameraman Josh (Leonard) is the slacker-type along for the ride and sound technician Mike (Williams) is mostly concerned with making sure they get the rented equipment back on time. After interviewing a couple of locals about the legend, the foolhardy trio head into the woods, and everything starts to fall apart.
It would be unfair to give away too much, but the movie gets its chills without resorting to special effects (which it couldn't have afforded anyway) or anything in the way of an explanation. It's strong on disturbing throwaways (stick-figure dolls, child-sized handprints, something unidentifiably bloody) and there's a gathering sense of panic - realising the woods don't conform to her precious map, Heather finally cracks up completely, far more disturbingly terrified than any previous screen screamer.
Inevitably, the film has more rough edges than most (many deliberate), and the improvised dialogue veers from the unsettlingly convincing and the needlessly rambling. But as an object lesson of how little you need for terror beyond pitch darkness, The Blair Witch Project deserves all its success, and then some.