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Saturday, July 24, 1999 Published at 10:30 GMT

Hollywood's chilling new wave

Haunting star Catherine Zeta Jones at the film's LA premiere

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

Psychological terror has returned to the big screen with at least a dozen new horror titles set to open in the US before the year is out.

Just released is The Haunting, a big budget remake of a celebrated 1963 haunted house film made by director Robert Wise.

The picture stars Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones, and it is directed by Jan De Bont whose previous credits include Speed and Twister.

By all accounts it is not the cast that is the true star attraction of this film but the haunted mansion, which comes alive through state of the art special effects.

In the coming weeks American cinemagoers can expect to be rattled by a whole slew of other Hollywood horror pictures.

Small film captures imagination

[ image: Samuel L Jackson: New shark shocker]
Samuel L Jackson: New shark shocker
Samuel L Jackson stars in Deep Blue Sea alongside some very scary sharks.

Bruce Willis counsels a boy who communicates with some none too friendly ghosts in The Sixth Sense.

Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has joined the horror bandwagon with End of Days, a suspense film in which his character tries to save the world from Satan.

But so far it is not a big-budget Hollywood endeavour that has won the contest for spine-tingling suspense. Instead it is a small film with an ingenious concept called The Blair Witch Project.

This "mockumentary" made with an initial reported outlay of only $20,000 is about a fictitious group of film-makers who mysteriously vanish in the Maryland woods. It was made by five real-life novice filmmakers who created an elaborate, but entirely fake mythology about an old woman ghost whom they have called the Blair Witch.

The tale they have spun describes in great detail how three college film-makers disappeared in 1994 after entering into the woods while creating a documentary based on their search for the witch.

Raw and dramatic

[ image: Blair Witch Project actor Joshua Leonard]
Blair Witch Project actor Joshua Leonard
These make-believe film-makers are led by a director called Heather who videotapes their nightmarish odyssey. According to this invented tale, a year after the film-makers disappear their film and videotape are found. The Blair Witch Project is presented as an assembly of their recovered footage.

What makes this film so effective is the sense that it is a true story, with the actors delivering some extremely raw and dramatic performances.

To bring authenticity the actors camped out on their own in the open for eight days in the Maryland woods while they filmed themselves.

They were tracked by a production team that left food and notes on direction at certain strategic spots. This team also made unexpected visits at night to frighten the actors with props and strange noises.

In the Blair Witch Project you never see a scary monster, but the overall effect is chilling. Eduardo Sanchez, who co-directed the film, says, what makes it so frightening is that "there's a primal fear of hearing things in the woods that you can't see and that's what this film completely plays on".

Indeed, it's a tribute to the Blair Witch Project that it is able to induce terror with no blood, violence or special effects.

End for teen-slasher films

[ image: Scream: Old-school horror]
Scream: Old-school horror
Whether it is the artsy and experimental Blair Witch Project or the more traditional The Haunting, this new wave of horror hitting American screens appears to be replacing the gory self-mocking teen-scream film, epitomised by Scream and its various spin-offs.

Film professor David McKenna, who has just taught a class on horror movies at Columbia University in New York, believes the era of teen-slasher films may be waning.

"I think that we're pretty much at the end of a cycle," he says.

He believes these post-modern teen-slasher films may have run their course partly because "we've seen about every variation that you can find".

Historically, horror films have often been a response to widely felt cultural anxieties over the threat of nuclear annihilation or contagious disease, but this new wave doesn't seem to be a reaction to obvious worldly realities.

If anything, it caters to a relatively content but inward-looking American moviegoing audience that in a relatively angst-free summer is looking for a roller-coaster ride of cheap thrills.

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