Throwback Thursday: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project was much more than just a horror film. It was a phenomenon. From meager beginnings, this $60,000 production would go on to gross over $240 million. Viral marketing, word of mouth, and a novel approach at filmmaking launched The Blair Witch Project into something far bigger than creators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez ever dreamed of. It also polarized crowds…truly one of those “you love it or hate it” experiences.

The plot surrounds the plight of a trio of filmmakers who go missing in the Black Hills of Maryland while making a documentary about a local legend, The Blair Witch. A year later their footage is found and a timeline of their events has been pieced together by the police. The film that you are watching is the aforementioned footage, and it is presented as if it really happened. It begins with the prep for the documentary, little moments recorded on tape, and interviews around town. Once they get into the woods things progressively get worse, especially at night. By the time you reach the end of the film the tension is ratcheted up so tight you can hardly breathe. On the off chance that you’ve not seen the movie, I’m not going to spoil things here, but seriously, why have you not seen it?!?

Watching the movie now is a different experience than watching it back in 1999. There was a lot of suspicion that the footage was real and that the events actually took place. Brilliant internet marketing set the benchmark for future viral campaigns. The official website for the film was set up in such a way that it appeared to be a site containing evidence about the missing filmmakers. It showed police reports, interviews with locals who had seen them before they were lost in the woods, and other tidbits of information. When the movie premiered at Sundance, “missing” posters were placed around the venue. This was one of the very first times that the internet was used in such a creative way to promote a film, and boy did it work. There was even a “mockumentary” on the Sci-Fi Channel called The Curse of the Blair Witch preceding the national release of the movie. It contained interviews with experts on witchcraft, professors of the missing filmmakers, and information about the local legend about the Blair Witch. Genius!

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The way the film was shot added more realism and lent itself to being believed as actual found footage. It was all filmed by the actors, shaky cam and all, and they were only partially aware of what was going on each day. As they interviewed locals in town, Myrick and Sanchez had planted actors who would give them tidbits about the Blair Witch that would later serve to push the plot forward. Once they got into the woods they recorded hours of footage, most of which was not used. They had a slight guideline as to what they were supposed to do each day with GPS coordinates given for their next objective. At these locations a milk crate with supplies and individual instructions were give to the actors on what they were supposed to do, which was not to be shared with each other. At night they were harassed and sleep deprived. Tensions on film were real by the end of the shoot, as food was also coming in shorter supply. Talk about forced method acting!

I love this film. I drove an hour and a half away to see it during its limited initial release in Birmingham twice! I then saw it three more times once it hit local theaters. I thought it was horrifying, and I still do to this day. It kicked off the sub-genre of “found footage” horror, which I am a fan of, though it has become ripe with decayed results over the years. I can also understand where the vitriol about the film comes from. The shaky cam footage can be nausea inducing to the point of being difficult to watch. Heather Donahue, the one helming the documentary, is often cited as being unbearable. In fact, she won a Golden Raspberry Award for worst actress that year. I don’t disagree, she’s not the most likable character. But what she was, was believable. She was driven, and as her hold on the film decays so does the morale of the whole team. She’s the captain, and where she goes, so goes the crew. If you’re wanting a nice and tidy ending you’re also going to be disappointed. I love the ending and all that it did to add to the Blair Witch mythos, but some people just cannot abide an ending that isn’t clear cut.

The marketing and release of The Blair Witch Project is something that will never be able to be repeated. The scope of the internet today alongside social media would prevent the level of depth they were able to keep as believable for such a long period of time. I’m glad I was able to experience it and it stands as a testament to what can be done with a good idea and a handful of people. Sure, movies like Cannibal Holocaust and The Last Broadcast tried their hand at this type of film first, but nobody fully realized the potential behind found footage until Blair Witch. Whether you like the film or you don’t, The Blair Witch Project was a trendsetter and in my book, a stone cold classic.

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