In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary…
A year later their footage was found.
That is the text that appears on the poster for the iconic horror movie The Blair Witch Project. It revolutionized the sub genre of found footage horror movies that would become popular by the success of films like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield and is considered to be one of the most successful independent films ever made. But 20 years after its Sundance premiere and successful theatrical run, audiences are still split as to whether or not it’s a good movie. Not only do I think it’s a good horror movie, I personally think it’s genius with its techniques.
A Brief History
The brains behind Blair Witch are two men named Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Their film stars three primary actors (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard) playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It first premiered at Sundance in January 1999 and was released theatrically six months later.
In a time before social media, I would consider Blair Witch to be the first viral marketing campaign. Leading up to its release, the website for the film included faux police reports and interviews presented in newsreel style. In its buildup, the actors were always presented as either “deceased” or “missing”, and Myrick and Sanchez invited people to come forward with any information they have on the “missing” actors. They also passed out flyers (much like the one posted above). IMDb even helped out with its campaign by having the actors listed as “presumed dead” during the first year of distribution.
All this marketing paid off for everyone involved. The film was made on a $60,000 budget and acquired by Artisan Entertainment for distribution for another $1.1 million. By the end of its theatrical run, The Blair Witch Project grossed $248 million, making it not only one of the most successful independent films of all time, but also pushed it into the top ten highest grossing films of 1999. Guinness Book of World Records has it recorded as the best budget to box office ratio ($1 of budget for every $10,931 made).
Critics also adored the film. The late Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars, calling it “an extraordinarily effective horror film”. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone also called it “a ground-breaker in fright that reinvents scary for the new millennium”. Audiences, on the other hand, were split. The movie earned a nomination at the Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Movie and awarded Heather Donahue Worst Actress. I like to take that with a grain of salt, considering they nominated The Shining for a couple of those “awards”.
What makes it special?
I first learned about Blair Witch through my uncle. He loves horror movies and would have various posters hanging up around his house. (I’ll never forget the original poster to Carrie hanging up in the guest room). One of the posters he had was for Blair Witch. He gave me a brief summary, outside of the aforementioned description on the poster, and I was fascinated. When I entered high school I decided to check out the movie for myself.
I was very impressed with a lot of the techniques used in the movie. The actors were allowed to improvise almost all of their dialogue. The filmmakers would put them in various situations such as making them walk south for nothing or giving them less and less food to give them an “on edge” effect. This allows for a very natural and believable frustration to the characters. I will admit that the only downside to it was that it would seem like the two guys were ganging up on Donahue.
It also is the perfect demonstration of fear coming out of what you don’t or can’t see. We never see the titular witch at the end. We never see what happens to most of these actors. The most we see comes at the end when Heather sees one of her colleagues standing in a corner (referenced by the legend told early in the film). She screams, drops the camera and the film holds for several seconds of a sideways shot before cutting to the credits.
How Other Films Influenced Blair Witch
Some of the techniques used in Blair Witch were popular in other horror films, and continued to be used in films that followed it. The main technique that came to prominence is that aforementioned idea of never seeing the boogeyman. Many horror films of the past and present have used that idea of holding out on that reveal. For example, the classic Spielberg movie Jaws has a run-time of 124 minutes, but only four of those minutes have the shark on-screen.
As for the found footage technique/gimmick (depends on how you feel about it), Blair Witch wasn’t the first found footage film, but it is arguably the most popular one. A lot of movies that came afterwards would use that as a framing device. Some were successful such as Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, The Visit and [REC] while others found failure from that very device that gave other films success. Those failures have included Unfriended, The Gallows, Apollo 18 and most notoriously The Devil Inside. Found footage isn’t just restrained to horror films. Chronicle was an interesting spin on the superhero genre and the cop movie End of Watch was filmed entirely using dashboard cams found on police cars.
Does it deserve love/hate?
As I mentioned before, I personally love this movie and consider it to be influential to other movies for better and for worse. That being said, it’s not for everyone. There were plenty of reports saying that the shaky cam got people sick when it was in theaters. It wouldn’t be the first film to do that and it wouldn’t be the last. Whether or not people liked it, there’s no denying that Blair Witch got people talking, and in that regard I applaud the filmmakers.