Back in 1999 film fans had a cavalcade of riches. The Phantom Menace appeared to crushingly disappoint audiences, whereas The Matrix surprised audiences, while American Beauty showed that middle aged men lusting after their daughter’s underage best mate lead to a tragic, but Oscar winning end. Then there’s The Blair Witch Project, the small independent film that became a sensation, not to mention obscenely profitable for filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, their company Haxan Films and Artisan Entertainment, the company who released the film.
The Blair Witch Project is the first film to really capitalise upon the internet to market itself. Back in 1999 we had the internet, but things were slooooowwwwwwww, with dial-up speeds being akin to getting into a 1.0l VW Polo after driving around a Porsche 911. Even so, the film’s website and internet marketing was sensational with a mockumentary on the SciFi (now SyFy) channel, The Curse of the Blair Witch, to add to the hype and to the backstory. The three actors, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams because short lived major celebrities before vanishing into cinematic history.
From the off the film took severe criticism. Part of that came from people who pointed out the resemblance to The Last Broadcast (a fantastic film let down by its final reel), or Donahue’s performance which consists mainly of doing silly things to drive the plot on and crying/screaming but mainly the criticism was aimed at the hype, which to be fair, was cloyingly everywhere yet look at the film and you’ll find something quite special.
The plot of The Blair Witch Project is fairly simple; three student filmmakers in 1994 set out to make a documentary about the mythical Blair Witch (based upon the real world legend of the Bell Witch), so they head to Burkittsville, a small town (which is entirely real) in Maryland in America, interview some locals to find out the history before setting off into the woods in the Black Hills near the town never to be seen again. A few years later some film and video is discovered which is edited together to make this film.
It’s this mythology the film builds up superbly at the start. This is sometimes cited as ‘boring’ but the opening interviews with locals are essentially to build up the mythology of the Blair Witch, while introducing a level of threat for the three students with the story of child killer Rustin Parr, supposedly influenced by the Blair Witch to murder children in the town in the 1940’s. You need to pay attention here because if you don’t you’ll miss out why the ending is so scarily satisfying. This 15-20 minutes is the meat and gravy of the film; the wandering around lost in the woods with scary sounds, crying, shouting and screaming is the build up to the last 5-10 minutes which is to this day, one of the best, albeit scariest, times I’ve had in the cinema.
When the characters are in the woods they do stupid things because if you’ve been brought up in towns or cities when you get into the country or the woods you often do stupid things because you’re not used to reading maps, using compasses, or being cut off from technology; something more scary today perhaps to Millennials, but was still a fear in the distant past of 16 years ago. All this stuff is important. It shows the three are not just lost, but being manipulated by something to remain lost which introduces a direct supernatural element but not one we see, though we hear weird noises, but when you’re in the dark in the woods every noise is a weird noise. Once our protagonists discover Rustin Parr’s dilapidated house we know things are going to end badly for them, yet the end isn’t a big, gory set piece or something smugly postmodern as was the trend in the late 90’s in horror. It’s stark, and if you’ve paid attention to the opening scenes back in Burkittsville, utterly petrifying. The scenes in the woods are essentially one long series of Lewton Bus after Lewton Bus but with an actual pay-off.
I love The Blair Witch Project. Unlike The Last Broadcast it doesn’t trip up at the final hurdle mainly because from the start there’s a clear ending, so what we see in the film is designed to get everyone to that ending while dragging a compliant audience with them. That’s helped with the mix of film and video which gives it a documentary feel which helps with the entire found footage idea, a genre which at the time wasn’t as all pervading as it is today. In 1999, the idea of a found footage film was still unique to some people even though you could point to several examples, including Cannibal Holocaust, another film The Blair Witch Project borrowed some of its DNA from.
Go into The Blair Witch Project and view it as an independent art film which happens also to be a horror film. The hype is an aside, it doesn’t or shouldn’t detract from what is a wonderful example of how to do something differently at a time when as said, post-modern horror like Scream dominated the genre. The Blair Witch Project changed things to show there was an audience for different types of horror. Most importantly it set out to scare people by throwing realistic fears (the dark, being lost, dying alone) at us in a safe, controlled way while tied up with the element of the supernatural to give it that extra glorious frisson.
There is a sequel which I’ll scrape off my boot and move on from, while another sequel, simply titled Blair Witch, and directed by Adam Wingard is due out this week. I doubt it’ll repeat the hype of the original, it’ll be impossible to do in 2016, but this could either be a fitting reboot/sequel of the original or something we don’t speak about in public ever again. Before you see it I suggest sitting alone in the dark, putting on The Blair Witch Project, and then going for a wee wander in the nearest woods, or even park if you’re in a city, near you. It’ll change how you see the film. Trust me.