2019 Film Essays

‘The Blair Witch Project’ at 20: A Found Footage Classic That Spawned a Genre

I distinctly remember driving home in the dark, along a desolate country road (my family lived in the boonies), feeling a mild dread at my wooded surroundings. It was July 1999, and my buddy and I had just seen The Blair Witch Project at the local multiplex. I had seen horror movies in the theater before, but never anything that seemed so real. I knew it was a work of fiction — the marketing hadn’t pulled the wool over my eyes — but this was the first found footage film I had ever seen and it actually rendered me somewhat nervous as my friend pulled into my rural driveway that night and I got out of the car.

I wasn’t the only one impressed by The Blair Witch Project. The film was a massive success, going on to be one of the most profitable films of all time, with a worldwide box office of $248.6 million set against a budget of just $60,000 (that’s insane.) But was it a fluke? I don’t think so. I’d argue that The Blair Witch Project remains an effective horror film, with its first-person, camcorder style and slow-burn, don’t-show-shit delivery (seriously, I’m still waiting to see that witch) giving it a rawness and realness that made what might have been a rote horror flick into something memorable. Not only that, but the movie spawned an entire sub-genre of horror — found footage — and blazed a trail for viral internet marketing. It might have spawned a couple crappy sequels, but it’s a highly influential horror film and one worth watching 20 years later.

“Real” Scary

Think about the horror landscape of the late 1990s. Horror had actually been made hip again by Scream just a few years earlier, and most big-name films coming out were clones — e.g.  I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend. The Blair Witch Project was almost the antithesis of these movies. A low-budget indie flick starring plain-looking folks, set in the woods in rural Maryland. No blood, no T&A? ? Yawn city, right? But the film got wide distribution and its first-of-its-kind nature made it stand out from the glossy herd. Some of it might have been due to the marketing (more about that in a bit), but put simply, The Blair Witch Project  is a scary, too-real experience. And it certainly helped that no one had ever seen anything like it before.

It’s a fairly simple story. A trio of student filmmakers go to Burkittsville, Maryland to investigate the famous Blair Witch. They go into the woods, find weird rocks outside their tents, and even weirder stick figure people hanging from the trees. Then one guy, Josh, goes missing, there’s lots of screaming, and finally the remaining two, Heather and Mike, are taken out by an unseen force in some random creepy house in the woods. Scary but nothing groundbreaking story-wise. But the first-person, found-footage format gives all of this action a realness that slick cinematography and “spooky” mood lighting never could. You’re watching “real” people on a real, somewhat uneventful hike through the woods, and you’re practically out there with them. It helps that most of the dialogue was improvised. The actors were sent into the woods for eight days, directed where to go and what scenes to act each day by a series of messages left in film cans throughout Seneca Creek State Park. There might not be any snappy dialogue or incredibly staged shots in The Blair Witch Project, but there’s an authenticity to the experience that makes things really scary when shit starts to hit the fan.

The scare-factor gets a big boost thanks to the film’s restraint. Maybe it was a budgetary thing (could they even afford to make an effective-looking witch with their pittance of a budget?) or maybe filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were students of the Jaws and Alien school of horror filmmaking, but it certainly helped that they didn’t show the witch or gore or really any of the scary visuals one would expect from a horror movie. Think about it: you never see a dead body, no witch, in the movie. The most “graphic” thing shown is a pile of sticks containing what is believed to be Josh’s bloody shirt, teeth and hair; it’s onscreen for a split second and it’s no more scary than something you’d pick up at a Spirit Halloween shop. But all of this holding back allows the viewer to ruminate, to build up horrifying images in their own heads. Some might call that cheap or lazy, but it’s effective as hell, and it worked.

Spawning a Genre 

Once Hollywood saw how successful The Blair Witch Project was, it was only a matter of time before others followed in Myrick and Sánchez’s footsteps. Not only was found footage a unique new way to tell stories, but it was hip and capital C cheap. Would the Paranormal Activity franchise or Cloverfield exist had The Blair Witch Project not shown that found footage could work? The genre really took off in the early 2010s, with a new one practically coming of every other day, it seemed — The Last Exorcism, V/H/S, Unfriended

Some found footage films are memorable, some are abysmal. What’s been made abundantly clear is that making a “found footage” production isn’t enough to carry a mediocre film. The Blair Witch Project works because it slowly builds dread and features realistic characters that one can empathize with. It also helped that it was a novel idea, a truly original concept, in 1999. In 2019, a director has to work extra hard to make an effective found footage movie not seem like a gimmick. It’s not surprising that Blair Witch, the second sequel to The Blair Witch Project, has a 37 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Slicker is definitely not better when it comes to these type of films. It’s all about creating an authentic experience. 

Viral Marketing Before Viral Marketing Was a Thing

Myrick and Sánchez came up with the concept for The Blair Witch Project after realizing that paranormal documentaries, of which they were fans, were often scarier than traditional horror movies based on the same mythology. When they began marketing The Blair Witch Project, they went all-in on the documentary angle, pitching it as actual footage, the final days of a trio of real filmmakers. The marketing campaign was way ahead of its time. Missing persons posters were made for Heather, Mike and Josh. Flyers were passed out at Sundance asking for information that might lead to the discovery of the missing filmmakers. 

The pièce de ré·sis·tance was the film’s website, which included fake police reports about the incident, info on the Blair Witch mythology, photos of the filmmakers at “film class” before embarking on their journey, and more. It’s the kind of stuff you see all the time done to promo modern-day movies, but this was back in the days of AOL. Some people saw it for the cheeky marketing that it was, but a lot of people really took it all at face value, which says a lot about the power of good marketing… and the gullibility of the general public. 

The Blair Witch Project isn’t a horror film experience on par with The Exorcist or The Shining, but that’s not a fair comparison. It’s an experience all its own. The film’s impact has been slightly overshadows by the overflow of found footage productions that have come out in its wake, but it remains an influential movie and a potent example of the power of restraint in the horror genre. Even though it’s hella fake, The Blair Witch Project still holds up.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.

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