catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 6 :: 2005.03.25 — 2005.04.07


Deep horror, deep hope

Part two of two

Read part one of this article.

The logic goes that once you know what someone really loves you know
that person. No doubt true. But it can also be instructive to discover
what that person has felt compelled to respond to. I believe those
comments paint a picture of what a person is rather than what they hope
to be. That sort of self portrait is the one I will opt for here and I
offer it via my thoughts on a few key modern horror films made since
1960. This approach also makes sense for me given one inescapable
truth; I have far too many "favorites" to choose from when it comes to
modern horror film.

Why so many? It's not just the sheer number of films (the genre has
exploded, growing steadily over the last couple of decades) but the
deep and abiding questions they raise about personhood, identity, and
the honest portrayal of our deepest anxieties and fears. Consider this
dialogue from Hitchcock's Psycho (1960):

Norman Bates: You know what I think? I think that we're all in our
private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We
scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for
all of it, we never budge an inch.


Marion Crane: Sometimes, we deliberately step into those traps.

Norman Bates: I was born into mine. I don't mind it anymore.

Marion Crane: Oh, but you should. You should mind it.

Norman Bates: (laughing) Oh, I do.

This paranoia seems rooted in more than just thin air. It's conveyed by
action, a willingness to scramble after meaning no matter what the cost
but always with the feeling that we are trapped in some hostile
landscape. It was territory explored just a few years later by John
Frankenheimer in Seconds, a masterpiece of paranoia and dread.



Banker Arthur Hamilton, a disillusioned, middle-aged businessman
becomes desperate to turn back the clock on his life when he begins
receiving mysterious calls from a former colleague. The calls lead him
to an organization which will give him what he wants, but at what
price? Soon he is a completely different looking person with a new
career, a new love, and a new future. But who is he? And does he know
what he really wants?

What follows is a journey into paranoia that I've only encountered during really good productions of Waiting for Godot or Long Day's Journey Into Night.
True, those plays aren't first and foremost studies in paranoia, but
the feeling is certainly implicit. The characters are unsure of their
true needs and desires, caught up in processes beyond their control,
and finally the human yearning for meaning and purpose. They also
embody the frustration we all sometimes feel by being lost in a complex
world of beliefs and ideas. Seconds is U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" writ dark as any night Eugene O'Neill ever imagined.

The cast is uniformly excellent with John Randolph and Rock Hudson
sharing the part of Banker Arthur Hamilton. If your only contact with
Hudson is his lighter fluff with Doris Day then you're in for a big
shock. This is undoubtedly his strongest screen performance and you
will view him in an entirely different light as an actor. Will Geer,
best known for his performance as Grandpa on The Waltons also has a strong turn as the head of the corporation that Hamilton buys into.

One of the most startling moments in Seconds occurs after
Hamilton has undergone his transformation. His newly found love
interest played by Salome Jens convinces him to attend a hippie-styled
get together on a mountainous hill. The picnic soon turns into the
basest sort of orgy and although there is a great deal of nudity and
revelry onscreen, it's pretty clear that Frankenheimer's goal is not
lust but the communication of irony. Hamilton is a lost soul trying on
identities and none seem to fit. His discomfort at being thrust into
the grape stomping orgy of the partygoers is truly uncomfortable for
anyone who's grown to care about him as a character. His subsequent
seduction into the revelry does not fit the character of the man we've
come to care about and the overall result is one of great unease. We
know that this road will not take him where he wants to go. This is a
lengthy and uncomfortable sequence for those who are bothered by skin
in the movies and although Frankenheimer is obviously interested first
in using it for his theme, viewers should consider themselves warned
that it is pretty strong stuff.

Seconds is benefited greatly by the expert finesse of several
legendary technicians. The film was lensed by legendary cinematographer
James Wong Howe, who made great use of the film's theme of paranoia to
explore different camera techniques. Chiaroscuro and fish-eye lensing
are juxtaposed at the beginning of the film with startling titles by
Saul Bass famous for his work with Alfred Hitchcock. The film also
contains an early score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Carnival of Souls

The theme of paranoia and the inability to fit in carries over in the magnificent Carnival of Souls (1962). If you have any taste at all for oddball cinema you may be missing a film that deserves your attention Carnival of Souls has that property of strange-but-great films. It is absolutely compelling and if accepted at face value the plight of Souls' protagonist will haunt long after the initial viewing of the film.

I'm not talking about mere suspension of disbelief. Carnival of Souls
does offer up enough atmosphere to captivate the viewer, but it also
deals in big questions stated very simply—so simply in fact that at
first you're tempted to dismiss them. But by the end of his odd little
masterpiece, Herk Harvey has earned the right to ask those questions by
slowly, surely leading us into the dark territory of the horror film
where we need answers to survive.

And the drive to survive is definitely what motivates Harvey's
heroine, Mary Henry. From the beginning scene where Mary inexplicably
emerges from a lake following a car accident we feel the subtle shift
that has taken us out of ordinary everyday environs and into a world
where we are unsure of our most basic assumptions. Candace Hiligoss
projects just the right air of otherworldly confusion following the
tragedy. She quickly takes a job in Salt Lake City playing organ for a
church seeming anxious to carry on her life as if nothing had happened.
But on the way to her new life she finds herself stalked by a
white-faced silent stranger who relentlessly pursues her only to vanish
mysteriously when she attempts to point him out to others. Soon nothing
provides relief from the impending dread the stranger represents, not
the comforts of her new home, the busyness of her new job, not even the
amorous overtures of her less than sensitive neighbor (brilliantly
overplayed by Sydney Berger). And each passing day Mary finds herself
drawn to an abandoned lakeside carnival she'd noticed on her drive up.
But what sort of carnival is this? Who dances beneath the rotting

One of the really unique things about Carnival of Souls is
the performances. They aren't bad, but they are unconventional in a way
that can be misunderstood as bad. What seems like overacting or, even
worse, directionless acting on the part of most cast members actually
generates a dramatic landscape of unrelenting otherness—we are being
taken somewhere where we've never been before. Many feel that Carnival of Souls
is the closest thing to being part of someone else's nightmare that
American cinema has ever produced. I probably wouldn't go quite that
far but I will say that I find this film fascinating and disturbing in
all the right ways. What gives us significance as individuals? In what
ways do the material and the spiritual collide to produce "reality"? Is
the white-faced stranger an agent of good or evil? These are just many
of the compelling questions Carnival of Souls may provoke.

Night of the Living Dead

1968's Night of the Living Dead, on the other hand, provokes
on a more visceral level not so much about individual identity but
community. Provoking and entertaining in a way that merely repulses
some there is still no doubt the qualities that make it compelling are
so fundamental that George Romero's debut has continued to be the focus
of critical attention and discussion for over thirty years. The plot
concerns a group of people, unrelated to each other, who find
themselves trapped in a lonely farmhouse by a group of flesh-eating
zombies. We are given only scant explanation as to why the dead are
rising from their graves to eat the living, but Romero was smart enough
to realize that viewers wouldn't really want to know why.

Shot in a documentary style, Dead dismantles easy assumptions
about human community. Though some may feel Romero is ham-fisted in his
treatment of the human condition (they're probably right—this is
melodrama at its purest level), that criticism doesn't explain the
impact that Dead often has on viewers. The stumbling
slow-moving zombies can be killed easily enough by a blow to the head
or by being set on fire but their sheer number transforms them from
movie monsters into a faceless unstoppable force, a dread abyss. How
the people trapped in the farmhouse react to that force provides a
great deal of Dead's tension and the fact that no matter how
those who are trapped react, all meet the same end—becoming victims
then zombies themselves, is a powerful statement that deserves

In many ways the 1968 Dead signaled the rebirth of the truly
horrifying movie which had long languished in the creaky gothic
trappings of England's Hammer Studios and the still creakier American
science fiction cum horror films of the 1950s. Though it is the fashion
to sit around in groups making fun of older movies like Night of the Living Dead,
there's no doubt that a late night viewing would cause many to reach
for the remote looking for some relief from the relentless concerns of
this important horror film. What is the nature of the universe we live
in? Is it ultimately chaotic or hostile? Are our ideas of good and evil
merely conceits?

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

These questions were posed even more powerfully by Tobe Hooper in his 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My first viewing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
was under ideal conditions. There was an audience of very appreciative
fans and a pre-film intro and post-film lecture provided by a great
teacher Tom Gunning who was running a horror film retrospective at the
Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago. I was completely unprepared
for the power it still holds. Starting with total blackness, with the
sound of a shovel and light bulb flashes, the film suddenly reveals
beautiful sunrise lighting on a tableau of human remains not so
delicately assembled into a nightmarish sculpture. Long before we get
to that doomed van of last generation flower children, Hooper makes it
clear this is an apocalyptic film, a film of the destruction of hopes
and dreams. The stifling burn of the air, the desolate landscape, the
decrepit slaughterhouse—we become aware of them one at a time until we
feel surrounded, suffocated.

A group of hippies, on an already uncomfortable, hot, sticky summer
journey, pick up a strange hitchhiker on a lonely Texas road. What is
at first merely unpleasant becomes horrifying when they refuse to buy
the disturbed man's Polaroid photos. Wielding a pocket knife the
stranger attacks one of the riders and then inexplicably cuts his own
hand. As the panicked passengers eject him from the van he smears blood
all over its side, marking the vehicle. It's a strange foreboding scene
unconnected in many ways to what later happens to those passengers and
yet it works just like everything else in the film on it's own terms.
We accept it because it makes perfect sense in the mad universe Hooper
so carefully lays out for us. As the passengers proceed from this
moment to visit an old farmhouse, and end up inexplicably drawn to
another, what happens next seems to be the only thing that does make
sense. Prior to the first murder in the film, there's a very pointed
discussion in the van about the old slaughterhouse that the group
passes on the road. There is talk of the displacement of those workers,
the effect this had on the town. And the hitchhiker himself makes
mention of it. By the time the iron door shrieks open revealing
Leatherface and his deadly mallet we realize we are looking at the true
native of this land. Death after death proceeds with surprisingly
little true gore. Instead, Hooper uses his setup to throw one
unbearably suspenseful moment after another at his film audience. Those
seeking exploitation-styled entertainment and nothing else are likely
to leave as stunned as Leatherface' first victim. Hooper is out for
blood, pulling away all the things that normally give an audience some
degree of comfort with their movie experience. By the time the chainsaw
comes into play there is the dawning realization that we are not called
to do anything but witness these proceedings. Nothing much is revealed
about the family. We understand that the cannibals are related, there
is a vaguely supernatural quality about the grandfather and his blood
drinking. But mostly we are put in the position to simply watch them as
they go about their own sick version of normal life.

I've heard various interpretations of "the family." How each one was
meant to be an extension of the shattered personality of Ed Gein—the
Wisconsin grave robber, ghoul and murderer famous for inspiring Robert
Bloch to write Psycho, but I can't help but feel that the
family is a parody of the American family representing folks who got
caught in the cracks as small town America began its great recession
into the more convenient, but less personal era of Wal-mart
superstores. These interpretations aren't mutually exclusive. But
relating the characters to the environment Hooper so carefully lays out
in the film is instructive. Radio broadcasts in the background paint a
picture of a world in chaos, close up shots of a turbulent sun beam
down like an angry eye, and a dead armadillo on the side of the road
stands in not just as a foreshadowing of what will happen throughout
the film but as a comparison to the corpse seen earlier. Is death the
only thing we can be sure of in this world? What about love,
compassion, peace, mercy? Did they dry up and blow away with the rest
of the town? More than any other film I know Texas Chainsaw Massacre
paints a picture of desolation, a fallen world, expulsion from paradise
into some nightmare. Leatherface and company have eked out an existence
for themselves and redefined, or perhaps exposed, the fatal flaw in the
American dream. It is fundamentally an economic promise. But there is
no real promise that if you work hard and pay your taxes that life, or
even the community you live in, will be kind to you. Economic systems
are Darwinian as people live or do not live because of them. To the
degree that corruption and greed make it impossible for people to get
healthcare, own homes and feed their families, we spawn a mentality not
unlike that of Hooper's family. I see it everyday on the streets of
Chicago—people just trying to get by.

The Hills Have Eyes

Of course you can always flee to the burbs but Wes Craven's 1977 The Hills Have Eyes
has one such family faring no better than Hooper's hippies. It should
be said that even for its time and budget, Wes Craven's second film
seems a little cut-and-paste. But with almost no money and under
unbearable shooting conditions, the director managed to put together a
movie that delivers some stunning sequences while exploring the
uncomfortable terrain of so-called civilization. The story had its
origin in the Sawney Bean legend. Sawney Bean lived in a remote part of
Scotland in the 1300s. Together with his wife, they eked out an
existence mainly through robbing, killing, and eating anyone they came
into contact with. Bean had a great number of children and raised them
to do the same. The family went largely undetected for many years until
one of their victims escaped and led authorities back to their cave.
After a fierce battle, what was left of the family—men, women and
children, including Bean himself—were taken back to Leith where they
were all tortured to death. The women and children were forced to watch
the men be dismembered and bleed to death after which they themselves
were burned to death. It's the savage response of so-called civilized
society that drove Craven to revisit the horror genre after becoming a
near social pariah for his successful but shocking debut film Last House on the Left.
Haunted by the idea that the societal response to evil was even more
savage and repulsive than Sawney Bean's actual crimes, Craven plotted
his film thusly. An all-American family gets off the main road and
encounters another family of cannibals who live in the hills. As they
are stalked and killed one by one they take increasingly desperate
measures to survive. Finally, it becomes impossible to separate them.
Craven's film is surprisingly tame and is almost more of an action
thriller than a horror picture even if the goings on are pretty
gruesome. But his hard twist on Lord of the Flies has been copied endlessly.

This review is way too short. Suffice it to say if the above doesn't appeal to you then try one of Craven's later films. But The Hills Have Eyes
is an interesting take on the central problem of fallen man. Society,
even with its carefully drawn up rules and laws, can crumble quickly
when it fails to address the problem of evil with anything except


Another movie that questions society's ability to deal adequately with evil is Halloween (1978). My first real impression of Halloween
came from a magazine article in a dentist's office. It would be 1-2
years until I saw the film myself and when I did it was on HBO. I had
never seen anything like it. The film not only scared the living
daylights out of me, but left me thinking about precisely the kinds of
things that I read about later in critical appraisals.

Police, Church, family even our own efforts don't ultimately protect
from all the effects of evil. No matter what we do, there is always
that sense of being stalked and when evil does appear it can utterly
negate our sense of self; WE cease to matter, or so it seems. Accident,
illness, crime—all these things are around us and proceed from us
despite the social and familial institutions we surround ourselves
with. I don't think John Carpenter's film negates those institutions,
but Halloween does explore their limitations and as such this
film is a masterpiece of meditation on our social religion. We need
something more than what these institutions provide or we are not safe.

Halloween, like many classic horror films, has a reputation
for being much more violent than it actually is. Far from being
gratuitous, virtually every violent moment in this film is driven by
the plot and carefully laid out characterizations. Such has not been
the case with most subsequent Halloween films. Those who object
to horror films merely because they find them shocking may do well to
stay away or to take the questions of the genre seriously. Where can we
go for safety when evil seems so pervasive? What is the ultimate
response to the immanence of death? Is it a matter of avoidance? Of
being a good girl like Laurie Strode? That sort of goodness seems, and
in Carpenter's world is, an inadequate shield. A Christian view of the
universe would indicate the same. "Fear not he who can kill the body
but he who can kill the soul." Do you have a soul? Or is Michael
Meyers, as good a symbol for death as any, destined to claim you and your body with his knife?

The Thing, The Lost Boys & Near Dark

Few 80s horror films did more than bank on the public's fascination
with increased realism in special effects and violence. But the films
that did—wowser! John Carpenters The Thing, The Lost Boys, and Near Dark
have survived the last two and half decades not just because they
contain shocking images, but because those images are part of stories
that are compelling to a large number of people. Carpenter's The Thing is nearly as evocative as its source material, John Campbell's novella Who Goes There? It's body-snatching alien motif supports a story that is, at its heart, about fear and trust. The Lost Boys borrows from Peter Pan in using teenage vampires to explore what it means to grow up. And Near Dark,
a masterpiece of modern vampire film, questions why anyone would want
to live forever in this world as well as affirming the universality of
family ties.

Each of these films contains scenes of shocking violence, that is to
say violence which is likely to provoke a visceral response in the
viewer. But the viewer is engaged with that violence in ways that
advance the worthwhile stories, character development and questions the
filmmakers want to pose.

Dead and Buried

While it could be said that Dead and Buried is slightly more
exploitive, it is overall a minor masterpiece when placed next to these
other films and deserves to be dug up (pun intended) and approached
fresh. Something very strange is happening in the picturesque sea
community of Potter's Bluff. Otherwise-normal townspeople slaughter any
stranger who wanders into town. Those dead strangers, then reappear
seemingly uninjured to live new small town lives by day and join the
slaughter themselves at night. As Sheriff Dan Gillis, recently returned
to the town from crime college, attempts to get to the bottom of this
unusual crime wave we watch him being served coffee and exchanging
pleasantries with people we know have done unspeakable things. What he
finally discovers calls into question most of what American society
holds sacred about death by reaching out into deeper territory where
the fear is not death or mode of death, but annihilation of personhood.

Jack Albertson (who was dying of cancer as he made the film)
squeezes every bit of life he can out of his role as G. William Dobbs,
the town coroner, driving to each crime scene in his 40s hearse, stereo
turned up loud to big band music. His speeches on the art of the
mortician and his confrontations with Dan are deliciously disturbing. Dead and Buried
is notable for a number of reasons that often take the focus off the
power of its storytelling. Robert Englund, who of course went on to
huge success as Freddy Kreuger, has a small but visible role, a host of
other character actors fill in and the film's violence is truly
eye-opening (pun intended). But there is a human side to this film that
I find impossible to ignore and I'm betting if you are a horror fan,
you'll mark this on a short list of great horror films you want to own
and cherish.

The Vanishing

Likewise, The Vanishing (1988). I'd wanted to see this film
for years. This isn't the American version you're probably somewhat
familiar with. That version starred Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges
and was played mostly for effect by the cast. Any resemblance to the
French version, the original version, was a matter of convenience.
While the American version managed to provide the requisite number of
jumps and screams it lacked any strength of idea. Any nuance underneath
the raw emotion left over for the viewer in that paltry remake is
brought home with full and devastating force in this powerfully acted,
exceedingly well-written original.

The curious thing is that both versions were directed by the same
man, George Sluizer. Whether he found the material interesting enough
to tackle twice or needed the money is unknown. My advice is to see his
original version first and, after digesting, rent the American version
so you can get a good idea of why critics hated it so much (probably
too much; it is a lot of fun). Based on a novel The Golden Egg
by Tim Krabbe, the film tells the story of a young man who becomes
obsessed with finding out what happened to his girlfriend who
disappeared during their summer vacation. Three years into his search,
his media appearances and desperate manner attract the attention of the
man responsible for the crime—an odd but rather normal man whose
reasons for kidnapping the girl, and later approaching the protagonist,
become apparent in the film's horrific climax.

Suspense movies work best when characters are willing to risk the
most for the best, most compelling reasons. That is certainly true
here. But Sluizer's The Vanishing is much more than a simple
suspense film offering a penetrating, bone-chilling look at the nature
of evil. I don't know how many of us would make the choice that the
young man makes, but without a doubt we can relate to his insane desire
to know the truth, to have some sense of history about the
disappearance of a loved one. More terrifying is Sluizer?s clear
identification with the killer who kills because, otherwise, how can he
know the difference between good and evil or even if there is any

The Blair Witch Project

I'll close with some thoughts on 1999's The Blair Witch Project.

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness, not far from death.
?Dante, The Inferno

Lost in the woods—a tired cliche, perhaps, referenced in so many
fairytales, campfire stories, and urban legends, one would hardly think
it a worthwhile basis for an entire film. But, like most cliches, the
image of being lost in the woods is too powerful for us to shake off
altogether. The forest is too symbolic of the dark, unfathomable
reality around and within us—a confusing, murky vastness: at best
indifferent, at worst hostile. And the more certain we think we are of
our bearings, the more terrifying losing them becomes. Because, after
all, what does it mean to be lost if not to discover the central fact
of our human experience—lostness—is not geographical, but
ontological? It's about our fragile and fragmented sense of Self in
relationship with a seemingly monolithic not-Self, the Other. We're
lost with or without the Other: the Self often doesn't know who it is,
even when it thinks it knows where it is. Meanwhile, out there, in the
woods, so to speak, is what might be perceived as the Ultimate
Other—waiting to finally swallow us up. This is the very frightening
prospect upon which that The Blair Witch Project hangs its frightwig.


Based on a very simple idea, Blair Witch tells the story of three
young would-be documentarians who decide to investigate a local
Maryland legend involving a witch, a series of child disappearances and
a number of ghostly visitations. It opens with a frame that reads as

In October of 1994 three student filmmakers in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland dissappeared while shooting a documentary.


A year later their footage was found.

From that moment on, the viewer is left in the hands
of the three actors—documentarian Heather Donahue, and crewmen Joshua
Leonard and Michael Williams. It was a big gamble for Sanchez and
Myrick to let their actors do the filming and sound. None of them had
more than two days training with the equipment. The result is bumpy
enough to induce occasional nausea, but of course the beauty is that
you never see anything except what their Hi-8 camcorder and 16mm
cameras reveal. Their footage follows them through five terrifying days
that lead up to their disappearance.


And what do those cameras reveal? A startling, frail, humanity set
apart from the usual glamour we afford to actors. You can tell that
much of Blair Witch is improvised and though—dramatically
speaking—some of the moments we're offered are less satisfying than
others, there's still the feeling that we've been offered something

To begin with, Sanchez and Myrick had next to no actual contact with
any of the actors during the shooting. Instead, the actors were merely
given instructions to film everything they did and be at appointed
places at appointed times. Meanwhile, Sanchez and Myrick would hike
ahead leaving behind the next day's film, a rough idea of each scene
with key lines, and provisions—which were reduced significantly as the
shooting progressed. Keeping the actors off balance gives us, the
audience, the opportunity to size up Heather, Josh and Mike as
people—not just as characters. We actually know more than the actors
do about what is eventually going to happen.

As they journey to Burkittsville to interview locals about the Blair
Witch legend, there are moments of unintentional humor. One woman,
holding her toddler, begins to recount the legend, scaring her child.
She calms her by reassuring that the story isn't true and then mouths a
quiet aside to the camera that it is. This little vignette is
especially interesting when compared to the interview of Mary Brown,
the crazy old woman on the edge of town. Brown's story of having seen
the Blair Witch should be easy for us, and interviewer Heather, to

But a glance at what happens a few moments later reveals something
of the tale's power, even on actors who are more or less free to play
with the details. Having left their car, the trio sets out to do some
filming at a location central to the legend. In spite of a well-marked
map and a compass, they soon become lost (a fact which Heather
stubbornly denies). An argument ensues, and it's after this initial
friction within the group that Josh asks Heather whether she
"…believes any of this stuff" (and by implication the testimony of
their interviewees). Heather replies, "I don't know, yet." It's a
telling moment for us, the audience, because we know better than to
believe what we're seeing up on the screen. Blair Witch is after all just a movie, Heather, Josh and Mike simply actors. But we're tempted to believe anyway.

This theme is explored further during the film in a number of scenes
where the actors who film almost everything they do and say begin to
grow increasingly hostile towards one another about the presence of the
camera using phrases like, "Don't point that thing at me!" and "Not
right now please" to convey their discomfort at being seen as they
really are. At one point, Joshua actually grabs Heather's camera and
shoves it into her distraught face, saying, "I see why you like this
video camera so much. It's not quite reality. It's a filtered reality.
You can pretend things aren't quite like the way they are."

Clearly, the audience would like to do that as well. But The Blair Witch Project,
taken on its own terms, provides little of the conventional
"it's-only-a-movie" relief viewers are used to retreating into. As
Heather angrily glares into the camera, Josh finishes his tormenting by
telling her, "I just want to make movies, Heather. Isn't that what
we're here to do? Make movies?" In an age where people and products can
seem indistinguishable, Josh's statement is a challenge to everyone who
merely see the arts as a drug to satisfy their entertainment jones.

The groundwork laid by the telling and retelling of the various
Blair Witch legends prepares the unaware actors and the audience not
only for the frightening events that follow, but for the idea that
lostness—not simple suburban pleasures and amenities—may be
humankind's actual natural environment. Even if Heather, Josh and Mike
get back to their respective lives after their adventure, they'll still
never be the same again—not unless they went into mental retreat,
settling back into the comfortable illusions afforded by their TVs,
VCRs and stereos. Over and over again one of the characters confronts
Heather with the question, "Are you absolutely positively sure you know
where your going?!" It is the question of a generation that, for all
its self-determination, is basically lost.

As Blair Witch progresses, we discover that Heather, Josh and
Michael are being stalked by something in the woods making their
hellish situation almost unbearable. If they don't know where they are
how can they get away? Adding to their frustration and fear is the
discovery of a cleared area in the forest decorated with piled rocks,
strange symbols and stick figures made out of bent twigs. Are these
bizarre totems merely the work of locals attempting to frighten the
trio? Or have Heather, Josh and Mike somehow fallen into a world made
up of more than they can see, taste, touch, feel or hear. Near the end
of the film, Heather turns the camera on herself to record a terrified
confession that leads into the film?s horrific revelation about the
nature of the trio's plight and echoes an earlier line from the film
where one character responds to the question "Are you okay?" with, "I'm
hungry and cold and hunted…and I just want to go home!"

Almost the entire audience sat spellbound as the credits rolled
during my second screening of Blair Witch. And I can't help but think
these viewers were shaken in a way that does not often happen at the
movies. Each of us is stalked by, among other things, death. Going to
the movies can be just another way of hiding from that fact. The Blair Witch Project
had pretty well obliterated that hiding place and in these days of easy
transcendence, that might be a good thing. It's hard to deny that
hunted down feeling, that hunch that some great evil has a claim on our
soul and its destiny. Maybe a little confession would suit us, here, in
the woods, before its too late.

Oh, dear reader (Stephen King addresses his readers this way and
I?ve always wanted to myself), if we had longer, the tales I could
spin: movies like Let's Scare Jessica To Death Session 9 and Frailty. Movies like Hannibal and The Sixth Sense and The Village.
The list could go on and one. But what is likely to go on and on is the
horror film or at least the horror tale itself. Long after you and I
are gone, physically counted out amongst the worms, people will tell
each other these stories because like many other kinds of stories,
horror stories are first and foremost about the things that matter, the
things that keep us up at night waiting, listening and drawing the
covers up against the cold.

Dave Canfield is a film critic, writer and co-founder of the
Cornerstone Festival Imaginarium Film Festival. Dave writes full-time
for several online publications including
Twitch Film and Static Multimedia and was an editor with Cornerstone Magazine
for ten years. A full time missionary journalist, he considers his
writing on horror film to be at the forefront of helping Christians be
salt and light in an increasingly scary world.

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