Three film students travel to Maryland to make a student film about a local urban legend… The Blair Witch. The three went into the woods on a two day hike to find the Blair Witch, and never came back. One year later, the students film and video was found in the woods. The footage was compiled and made into a movie. The Blair Witch Project.
To review the Blair Witch Project, a 1999 phenomena, is more like trying to compress time into a bottle. BWP created a new wave of horror style, managed to make quite a few magazine covers and had made quite a few horror and movie lists with its groundbreaking release.
I remember the year quite well, as I waited in line for this obscurely cheaply shot film. It was the thrill of the crowd and their anticipation that helped highlight the evening. You would have thought it was a ride at Disneyland the way crows flocked to the theatres. Though what sold this movie was the word of mouth and hype leading up to it. By today’s standards this film might not even make a theatre showing, let alone a DVD sales record. Mostly because its found footage style is worn out and a part of our culture now. But this review is not about now, it’s about a little film created by 2 guys Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, who broke records on a film that made $248,639,099 worldwide. This gross made it one of the most successful independent films of all time and eventually saw the release of a sequel.
Blair Witch Project starts very simply. A group of 3 friends (student filmmakers) decide to document their exploration on the legend of the Blair Witch. With a hike into the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland they speak to the camera and walk thru the woods looking for signs to validate their footage. The footage is shaky, POV and shared between the 3 who hike into the woods, camp and react when noises begin. The symbol of a wickerman-like stick crossing became a common sign throughout the film, signaling that the Blair Witch was indeed near. In once instance Heather Donahue speaks to the camera in sheer terror as her teared up eyes fill up the screen. This scene in itself became one of the focal marketing pieces shown in trailers.
BWP succeeds without ever showing an actual Blair Witch. The “lack of” factor in fact annoyed viewers even more forcing them to use their own imaginations heightening the experience. Other moments include frantic running, bickering and alot of eerie dark woods action to add to the aura. Dialog places a nice foreshadow on the legend, building up on the film’s direction.
The film starred 3 actors – Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams…3 unknowns who didn’t know they would be eventually represent icons for their time in this harrowing found footage horror movie. Now the main attraction here that incurred as much interest was that upon release it was promoted as found footage. Found footage for 1999 was not a clear cut idea. In fact with a fake web site in tact, many who saw the film didn’t realize that the movie was fiction. The actors stayed under the radar at first (to help further the mystery) and viewers were convinced that it was real. The paranormal horror they witnessed on screen was reacted with extremely disturbing realism. It’s brunt and unsettling ending helped sell this idea, and for awhile anyways….the film community didn’t know what they had just watched.
To add to the confusion, the 3 actors used their real names instead of character names. This and a lack of credits made the film feel that much more authentic. In fact viewers were convinced that they witnessed “something” they weren’t used to seeing.
It was even prior to the film as a theatre release that it created cult followers with bootleg VHS tapes circulating them among collectors. The rumor was, that others should check this out….. it will freak the sh*t out you.
It was a stroke of brilliance that fell upon perfect timing. The directors never went on to make another hit such as BWP, but they did get a quite a few film jobs.
Upon reveal and a finally-active-cast who started to make interview appearances, they confessed that alot of the movie was done from notes left by the directors upon which they had to follow and act out on camera. The whole production was rather hodge podge but appropriately haunting.
Later the movie was criticized by a prior production called “The Last Broadcast” (1998) which actually introduced the style in a similar manner but fell under the radar.
BWP set the stage for found footage productions, which even up to now continue to thrill viewers. A new term “cinema verite” was coined and horror was never the same. BWP will always be remembered for it’s impact upon the film community.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)