NEW YORK — "the blair witch project" was only the appetizer. That surprise hit of the warm-weather season - a striking-enough phenomenon to make the cover of Time magazine - captured the imaginations of young moviegoers so strongly that a gaggle of imitators may soon be aping its mix of low-tech cinema and high-intensity emotion.
But this is turning out to be a Year of the Thriller in other respects, too, as Bruce Willis's brooding drama "The Sixth Sense" zooms beyond the box-office take of last summer's superhit, "There's Something About Mary," a raunchy comedy at the other end of the spectrum.
A varied mix of suspense pictures is providing chills at multiplexes and art theaters alike. What the most memorable of them have in common is a refusal to explain the uncertainties of life through cut-and-dried whodunits. Instead they weave ambiguous tales in which Hitchcockian terror overlaps with the dreamlike and the uncanny.
The religion-themed Stigmata has gotten the most attention and sparked the most debate. Patricia Arquette stars as an ordinary young woman whose life has careened into chaos since she started manifesting signs of supernatural possession. She finds her experiences as incomprehensible as they are terrifying, but her case draws the notice of a Roman Catholic priest (Gabriel Byrne) who's also a scientist with a knack for orderly analysis of bizarre occurrences.
He begins to suspect that a mysterious messenger is using her as the vehicle for a theological revelation connected with the recent discovery of an ancient text from Jesus' time - which the Catholic establishment wants to keep hidden at any cost, since it would call into question traditional dogmas that have kept that establishment in power for centuries.
"Stigmata" spends most of its energy on horror effects, many of them shamelessly cloned from bygone hits like "The Exorcist" and "The Omen," which blazed this gory trail a quarter-century ago.
Beneath its sensationalistic surface, the movie has a worthwhile message - that spiritual growth is a matter of personal understanding, not institutional creeds - and its willingness to stake out such a position lifts it a notch above the crowd of more conventional thrillers. In the end, though, its makers are clearly more interested in violent jolts than religious ideas.
Violence is present but understated in The Minus Man, which brings welcome restraint to a story that still manages to be more engrossing and unsettling than its more boisterous competitors. Owen Wilson brings a patented brand of boy-next-door pleasantness to the protagonist, a wandering young man whose utterly bland exterior masks a horrible compulsion to murder strangers at random with an exotic poison he carries with him.
The movie gets its eerie power from lifelike performances by Janeane Garofalo and Mercedes Ruehl, among others, and from Hampton Fancher's inventively creepy screenplay, which throws just enough curves to keep the story fresh and surprising. Fancher's directing style is also impressive, depicting scenes that might have been grisly and gruesome with a quiet control that most of today's scaremongers would do well to study.
Too subtle to be called a horror picture and too mysterious for the "psychological thriller" label, "The Minus Man" may lose at the box office because it doesn't fit into standard marketing categories. Moviegoers who enjoy hovering on the edge of their seat should seek it out before it's swept off the screen by the next wave of more aggressive entertainments.
Stir of Echoes is less original than "The Minus Man," but has found an audience by virtue of energetic promotion and - more important - the popular appeal of Kevin Bacon. He plays an everyday working man who gets zapped with supernatural visions after his wife's sister (Illeana Douglas) hypnotizes him as a party stunt.
These visitations grow increasingly intense, threatening to derail his sanity until he realizes they're linked with an awful crime that once happened in his house and still cries out for justice.
This would be a better movie if Bacon didn't appear insecure about the part he plays, growling and gesticulating his way through the story as if we wouldn't otherwise notice the character's working-class background and ordinary-guy personality. It's hard to say what came over this usually persuasive actor.
"Stir of Echoes" is a run-of-the-mill supernatural yarn. It may end up with the largest profits of the fall horror crop, but it's the least ambitious of the lot.
*All three movies have R ratings; they contain violence, four-letter language, and other adult material.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society