It was the summer of 1999. The movie world was just catching it’s breath from The Matrix, a film which changed how we think about action films and how they are made. Little did everyone know, it wasn’t the only genre redefining film coming that year. No, not long after there was The Blair Witch Project.
Filmed in the woods in Maryland over 8 days for a budget of $22 thousand, somehow The Blair Witch Project defied all expectations and went on to earn just under $250 million worldwide. Through a combination of raw/realistic performances, gritty production and first-of-it’s-kind viral marketing, The Blair Witch Project became a powerhouse, spreading like wildfire through word of mouth and turning into an unlikely blockbuster.
The film tells the story of three college film students, Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard and Mike Williams, who all set out for a weekend in the woods outside Burkittsville, MD to film a documentary on a local legend, the Blair Witch. Over the course of filming, the three get lost in the woods and attempt to make it home, while being tormented by some unseen force/people/who-the-hell-knows in the woods at night.
The film is very raw and unrestrained, from an acting standpoint. We follow these characters from being sarcastic and joking with each other, to being terrified and unraveling as they become lost in the woods and things start fucking with them.
Heather especially is a fascinating character to watch as she starts as a know-it-all pretentious film student and we see her break down and reflect on herself as the film goes on, especially in the famous ‘close-up crying confessional’ scene.
“I was very naive…I insisted on everything…And this is where we’ve ended up and it’s all because of me that we’re here now – hungry, cold, and hunted.”
A large portion of why the film works so well is just how unsettling it is, and how it doesn’t really ever show you the horror that is occurring. In the aforementioned scene, Heather stops mid sentence, eyes frantically shifting side to side. “What was that?” There’s no audible sound and we have no idea if she actually heard something or is just paranoid and imagining it. It doesn’t matter though, we’re right there with her, frozen, straining to see if we can hear it too.
The Blair Witch Project plays on many fears the audience has. For the first half to two thirds of its running time, it uses the fear of being lost, abandoned and isolated. It’s three people stuck in the woods, afraid they will never get out. This could happen to us. It has happened to people. It will continue to happen to people.
The third act, however, is where the movie starts to really hammer the audience. From the point where the crew stumbles upon a bunch of crude stick figures hanging from trees, things just continue to amp up. They begin to hear noises at night outside their tent; twigs snapping, footsteps, even children laughing. They always step outside to look for what is causing these sounds, but see nothing but the pitch blackness of the deep woods at night.
One night, something starts shaking their tent and they all run out, hauling ass into the woods like their lives depended on it (they probably did). Heather screams “OH MY GOD! What the fuck is that?” Looking to the side as she’s running. We never see what she sees*, but we know it’s horrifying her, and therefore we know it must be awful and scary as hell.
There is a scene where they awake one morning to find Josh missing, and this leads to a couple of the most terrifying sequences in the film. The two following nights, they hear Josh screaming in agony in the woods. He cries and calls out for help from the void outside their tent, and there is nothing Heather and Mike can do to find and save him. Although they do find parts of Josh in a bundle of sticks outside their tent the next morning…
Sure Josh’s disappearance is foreshadowed with him knocking over a grave marker at the burial ground they find and his pack being vandalized the next morning (with the other two packs left unscathed), but originally Mike was the one to be abducted. The directors called an audible that night and took Josh instead, which not only worked beautifully but also says a lot about how the film was made.
The direction and construction of Blair Witch Project is an incredibly fascinating thing. The film was shot dual cameras: one using videotape, the other black and white 16mm film. The majority of the footage used in the film was shot by the actors, who operated the cameras themselves. The actors stayed out in the woods overnight with outlines given to them each morning of roughly what their story arc for the day would be. They didn’t have scripts, the actors themselves improvised almost all their dialog. In all, there was 19 hours of footage that directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick cut down into the final film. All instances of noises, tent shaking and other fuckery done to the cast was done by the directors without warning. Even removing Josh was a secret to the others, with the directors telling him in private to leave in the middle of the night while the other actors were asleep. All of this unconventional filmmaking lead to some genuine emotion and reaction from the actors, which translated so well on screen.
While large chunks of the film were improvised, the backstory and mythos surrounding the film was meticulously planned out. In the opening section of the film, the crew interviews locals about the Blair Witch legend. They all give interesting information, some actually very crucial to the ending of the film. A large mythology is hinted at, including info about a serial killer named Rustin Parr. All of the lore spanned across several forms of media including 3 faux documentaries produced for TV, a video game, and a book series. Probably the most important, though, was the film’s website.
The film’s site was part of the marketing blitz that came along with the movie, in what is perhaps the first case of viral marketing for a film. Part of this was the angle that the movie was real and that the actors were missing. All the trailers would tout this fact and direct viewers to the website. The site was full of all kinds of details and mythology that was not included in the film, along with information on the actors and how they had gone missing in the woods. To keep this ruse up, the directors even asked them to not make any appearances in public until after the film’s release.
This, coupled with the documentary airing on Sci-Fi treating this as a real case and the ‘found footage’ style the film was shot in, was unprecedented at the time…and it tricked people.
Part of what made this film so successful is the ability it had to fool a large number of people. They believed it was real, and that scared them. People would hear about this ‘real movie made of recovered footage’ and tell other people. As word got out, the film was soon playing to sold out auditoriums. The hype machine had hit full swing. The film was being hailed as one of the “scariest movies of all time”. Of course, with that came backlash.
I remember Blair Witch Project being quite divisive. There were people who fucking loved this movie and were impassioned over it, but there were others who were just as passionate about disliking it. In contrast to the acclaim it was getting, the film was also nominated for a Razzie for ‘Worst Picture’ and, in a move that sorta perplexes me, Heather Donahue won one for ‘Worst Actress’.
I experienced the original theatrical run myself, seeing it in a packed theater. I clearly remember someone standing up and shouting as the last shot faded from the screen, “Really? That’s it?!” Leaving the theater I heard a few people saying they loved it. I personally hated it. It’s taken me a lot of time, learning about the medium and a lifetime of love of horror to understand the film and appreciate it. I took forever to finally revisit it and with new eyes, divorced from the hype, I enjoyed it so much more.
The Blair Witch Project was groundbreaking in its format in addition to its marketing. It crafted a tense and atmospheric tale about being lost in the woods and stalked by an unknown entity in a very unique way that came across to the audience as authentic. It single-handedly kick-started the found footage sub-genre (for better or worse) and revolutionized the use of the internet for entertainment marketing purposes. While the film was a pretty big ‘love it or hate it’ situation with viewers, It’s worth viewing now when it no longer has to live up to expectations. If you didn’t like it before, you just might now…