PARK CITY, Utah How long has it been since I saw a film that was really scary, instead of just going through the motions of scary? Most horror films are merely exercises in ritualized surprise, but a low-budget film titled "The Blair Witch Project" shook up Sundance Film Festival audiences with its gathering sense of menace.
The film, directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, begins with a stark announcement: A few years ago, three filmmakers walked into the hills of Maryland in search of a legendary local witch. "Two years later, their tapes were found." The film consists entirely of video and 16-mm. film allegedly shot by the filmmakers, as a walk in the woods turns into a terrifying nightmare.
Walking out of the screening on Saturday night, I was with a group of people who actually thought it was a documentary. I told them it was fiction that cleverly used the techniques of fact. "Those performers weren't actors," one said. "They were too real." Sunday in the Salt Lake City airport, I ran into Michael Williams, who plays one of the three. "Yeah," he said, "after every screening, people were surprised to see me alive."
"Blair Witch" won no awards at Sundance, which ended Sunday, but was one of the most buzzed-about films.
Here are some others:
"Three Seasons," which became the first feature to win both the grand jury prize and the audience award, is the first American film shot in Vietnam. Tony Bui, born there but raised here, combines realism with romance and sadness in his interlocking stories about an ex-Marine (Harvey Keitel) searching for his daughter, a rickshaw driver who falls for a hooker, and some kids who live in the streets. It received standing ovations from Sundance audiences.
Chris Smith's "American Movie," which won the grand jury prize for documentaries, is a harrowing and hilarious work about a would-be filmmaker from Menominee Falls, Wis., and his heroic effort to film a horror movie titled "Coven."
Mark Borchardt, tall, gangly and bearded, is the hopeful producer, director and star, and enlists his buddies and family in the effort. An elderly uncle is persuaded to invest his savings, convinced it will all come to nothing. Local actors are recruited; one firmly corrects Mark's mispronunciation of "coven," and another allows his head to be pounded into a cabinet that does not break easily.
Of all the films I saw at Sundance, the best was "The War Zone." It's the first directing job by actor Tim Roth, whose roles range from "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" to "Rob Roy." In its story, tone, pacing, images, performances and effect, it is as well-made as the work of a seasoned professional. Roth takes a story filled with hazards and tells it triumphantly.
His film takes place in a wintry season in Devon, within a British family that seems close and happy but is not. It is slowly, painfully, subtly revealed that the father is raping his teenage daughter. This becomes known to the younger son, and how he deals with that information provides the film's central story. The father's behavior shows how people are capable of building mental firewalls between evildoing and their ordinary lives.
"On the Ropes," a documentary that won a special jury prize, tells the story of three boxers based in a gym in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. One of them, a mother of two, grabs our hearts. She lives in a house with a crackhead uncle but raises her children to earn straight A's in school and seems poised for a Golden Gloves belt after knocking out the current female champion.
Then crack is found in her house, and she's charged with possession and dealing - wrongly, we feel. The judicial system fails her; an incompetent attorney and an uncaring judge figure in a courtroom scene that makes you want to shout at the screen. Now she's in prison, but filmmakers Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgan say she may be paroled in September. She's still in training.
"Happy, Texas" was the festival's big money winner, purchased by Miramax Films for $2.5 million and a piece of the profits. It's a weirdly original comedy about two convicts (Jeremy Northam and Steve Zahn) who are mistaken for a gay couple hired to produce the local Little Miss Fresh-Squeezed Beauty Pageant. The sheriff of Happy (William H. Macy) makes discoveries about his own sexuality, while local teacher Illeana Douglas falls in what she thinks is futile love.
Barbara Sonneborn's husband was killed in Vietnam as a young man. She visits that land in "Regret To Inform" to come to grips with what happened three decades ago. She talks with other war widows - American and Vietnamese - in a film that approaches the war from a different viewpoint than all other Vietnam films. There is great sadness in the memories of the women, including one who seriously considered hammering her husband's hand while he slept to keep him out of uniform. She didn't, and he's dead.
"A Walk on the Moon" stars Diane Lane as a Jewish mother in the world of upstate New York summer resorts in the late 1960s. The women and children spend the week, and the husbands drive up on weekends. She finds herself attracted to the "Blouse Man" (Viggo Mortensen), whose retail truck makes regular calls. And there is the siren lure of the nearby Woodstock festival, reminding her that all of her options were put on hold when she married.
There are those who think the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda is at the top of the new generation of directors. His first film, "Maborosi" (1997), was a masterpiece, and he is back with "After Life," the story of a heavenly way station where the newly dead are asked to make a film of just one memory from their entire lifetimes. ("After Life" opens in the spring.)
"The City (La Ciudad)," by David Riker, tells related stories of illegal immigrants from Latin America trying to make lives in New York. Everyone agrees it is a wonderful film; no one seems to know if it would be "commercial."
One of the sad underlying themes at Sundance this year was a general lack of confidence in the national movie audience, which is thought to attend only empty-headed entertainments. Distributors are afraid to sink money into films they really love.
"Go," the second film by Doug Liman ("Swingers"), is yet another post-Tarantino pastiche of lowlifes whose stories occupy parallel time tracks. Grocery clerks, drug dealers, cops and actors in trouble get enmeshed in interlocking violence and intrigue. It doesn't make the mistake of the superficially similar "Very Bad Things," which went so far with its bad things that the humor could never recover.
"Sugar Town" is Los Angeles in the comedy by Allison Anders and Kurt Voss about the music business. Once-hot rockers, studio musicians and actors wheel and deal, love and hate and date in a series of sometimes delightful comic vignettes. Rosanna Arquette, Ally Sheedy and Michael des Barres are among the stars in a movie in which the dialogue is as inside as this week's Variety.