THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Still easily the best found footage horror
…, one mentions in the same breath those movies that, in some way, transcended the boundaries of the genre, using fear as a tool, rather than the end in itself. Titles like The Exorcist, The Shining, The Innocents, or The Ring are undisputed masterpieces of horror cinema, not only because they can still terrify us, but also due to their ability to provoke various kinds of reflection in the viewer – be it religious, existential, philosophical, or ethical, to name just a few possibilities. This is accompanied by the potential for multiple interpretations, memorable visual effects, and, most importantly, that rare and precious feeling of shock. Of course, there are also works with only one goal – to scare the viewer as effectively as possible – but they have done it in such a masterful or innovative way that, inevitably, they are considered key to the genre today; think of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Jaws, for instance. However, there is one film that made its mark on the history of horror with something entirely different.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) is often seen through the lens of before and after. Before the film, there was a brilliantly designed marketing campaign that cleverly utilized the emerging internet at the end of the 1990s. After the release, there was an enormous success (the budget was just around 60 thousand dollars, while the worldwide revenue was nearly a quarter of a billion dollars!) and a wave of found footage-style productions, where the creators were more focused on minimal investment for maximum profit, often neglecting the artistic aspect of their projects. Surprisingly, it took almost a whole decade before horror mockumentaries took over cinemas, a trend that continues to this day (initiated by the American Paranormal Activity and the Spanish [REC], both from 2007, although they appeared in theaters worldwide a year or even two years later).
In the meantime, the first The Blair Witch Project film lost some of its power. It’s often regarded as a phenomenon and a turning point in horror cinema at the turn of the century when digital cameras became a household item. Amid all of this, the actual work, highly praised during its premiere, enthusiastically received, and genuinely considered terrifying, seems to have been lost. It is currently overlooked in various lists and rankings of the best horror films. Is it truly just a product of its time (albeit one that introduced us to the new era) – well-promoted but lacking the characteristics of a great horror film?
I’ll remind you that the film begins with the following message:
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.
This information (as well as the title itself, implying horror connotations) served as the basis for a massive online hoax, suggesting the authenticity of the recording. The authenticity was further reinforced by alleged searches for the ill-fated documentarians who were, in reality, novice actors – Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams. The 5-year-long search brought no results. A website with information about the missing students, interviews with their families, official reports, as well as numerous photos and reports, appeared a year before the film’s release. Throughout this time, the directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, swore that the footage they edited was real. Eventually, The Blair Witch Project became an event even before it hit theaters, and after its release, it captured the imagination of millions of viewers, including those who still believed in the existence of the Blair Witch and the disappearance of the students.
The story of The Blair Witch Project revolves around an expedition by three young filmmakers aiming to make a documentary about the legendary witch and the incidents associated with her in a small town in the eastern United States. The project’s creator and director, Heather, the cameraman, Joshua, and the sound operator, Michael, barely know each other, but the initial scenes depict them as positively disposed and eager to cooperate. Interviews with local residents allow them to touch upon the mystery of the alleged activities of evil forces, but it’s challenging to take these stories entirely seriously. The climax is supposed to be the discovery of a cemetery in the nearby forest, but what starts as an innocent camping trip turns into a real nightmare. The characters of The Blair Witch Project quickly realize they’re lost, the atmosphere between them becomes increasingly tense, and at night, they hear strange and hard-to-define sounds.
The strength of The Blair Witch Project lies in its documentary style and the absence of any elements that could break the illusion of authenticity. There’s not a single false moment in Myrick and Sanchez’s work that would make us question the story we’re witnessing. I’m not referring to a marketing hoax – I believe that most viewers watching the film for the first time were already familiar with the clever marketing strategy employed by the creators. What I mean is the efficiency with which the directors (both the concept creators and the actors who actually held the cameras) created the illusion of truth, not allowing us to be tempted by flashy horror for a moment.
Music – a crucial element of screen horror – only appears during the closing credits of The Blair Witch Project, composed of low-frequency sounds and something akin to industrial thumping. Before that, it’s absent in the film, just like special effects. The only intervention by Myrick and Sanchez in the footage shot by the actors is editing, clearly serving to give the entire work a coherent and understandable character. Thanks to all of this, the recording from two cameras, digital and 16mm with black-and-white tape, serves as both a report of an unfortunate expedition and, most importantly, as an objective account. This is remarkable because horror doesn’t favor objectivity. It prefers to work with feelings, emotions, prejudices, with all that human uncertainty that seems to be the foundation of creating narrative horror. Interestingly, in the same year, another famous thriller was made, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, a completely different type of film that slyly uses the subjectivity of the characters to confuse not only the viewer but also the protagonist. As it turned out, many filmmakers at the turn of the century went in this direction, creating masterpieces (such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive).
Meanwhile, the creators of The Blair Witch Project show us characters in various emotional states, sharing their doubts and suspicions with us. But does this, in any way, affect the interpretation of the story presented? The cameras remain impassive, regardless of what the operator is thinking or feeling at any given moment. The operator, in fact, is also the character of what is happening in front of the lens. This looping serves the objective viewing of the whole, especially from the moment when the entire trio gets lost in the woods, and there is no one else but them.
– I don’t understand why you’re filming us.
– It’s a documentary.
– Oh, about the witch, not us.
This short dialogue illustrates the problem that the entire “found footage” genre faces, namely, the justification for continuous filming, even in the most terrifying and stressful situations. Fortunately, these characters are documentarians, so the compulsion to keep the camera running seems quite reasonable, although it also becomes a cause of many arguments. But the above exchange of words reveals something else. Ultimately, the recorded material does indeed become a film about them. This, of course, leads to the question of where the titular witch is. Although she is not at the center of events, her presence seems like a given.
There are genuinely unsettling scenes in The Blair Witch Project, and there are ones that will send shivers down your spine. However, it is never explicitly stated (or shown) that the work of the titular witch is responsible. Despite this, when Heather runs into the woods at night, looking in all directions and screaming, “What was that?!”, we have no doubt about the view that has appeared before her eyes. We don’t see what she sees, but we know that something is out there. The effect The Blair Witch Project has on its viewers can be attributed to this simple technique of filling in the gaps – our imagination does most of the work, creating images and ideas that go far beyond what we could actually see. Even the ending is a great example of this, but the most effective and terrifying scene is when the main character apologizes to the camera. This moment not only resulted in the film’s most famous shot (Heather’s tear-streaked face, which doesn’t fit into the frame) but also represents the character’s total surrender. Driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown, she is now ready only for death. The filmmakers’ relentless approach to gradually destroying this initially cheerful and determined character is stunning, and Donahue herself delivers a genuinely moving performance. It must have been all the more disappointing for the actress to learn that she received the Golden Razzie Award for her role.
The aesthetics of found footage, while extremely popular today, have their flaws. There’s no room for artistic cinematography, making it difficult to discern anything during the action scenes (i.e., running), and the long scenes, due to their supposed authenticity, feel even longer. This is the case with this film as well, perhaps a milestone in cinema (and definitely in its promotion), but an exceptionally unattractive one. If I had to point to one factor that decided that the original The Blair Witch Project is now more of a past success than a genre classic, it would be the lack of spectacle, the rawness of the material that affects its rewatchability. It’s not a horror film you revisit because it’s hard to have fun watching panic, quarrels, and hysteria, not to mention the limited room for interpreting the story itself. Paradoxically, everything that made Myrick and Sanchez’s work exceptional during its creation also contributed to its somewhat disappointing place in the history of horror cinema.
Not even an ill-conceived sequel that abandoned the quasi-documentary format in favor of traditional storytelling could help. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) tried to make the original a direct reference point upon its premiere, playing with the concept of the first film’s authenticity, but the story it proposed was simply foolish. Plans to make another part more in line with the original quickly lost their value as Japanese ghosts haunted cinemas, and a new generation of horror creators (including Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Alexandre Aja, James Wan) started to prefer cruel and macabre images. The world quickly forgot about the The Blair Witch Project.
Unexpectedly, Adam Wingard decided to revisit the topic and quietly shot Blair Witch, officially the third installment, also in the found footage style. This creator knows how to give a new quality to classic horror schemes, as he proved with You’re Next and The Guest, so there is a chance to revive what seemed like a dried-up and deeply buried corpse of the old witch. If this happens, it might also rehabilitate the original film in the eyes of many viewers. Myrick and Sanchez, whose paths diverged quickly after the premiere, and who never made anything else of note, certainly deserve this. Maybe it doesn’t make as much of an impression today as it did back then, but it still remains one of the most successful representatives of the quasi-documentary horror subgenre, capable of engaging the imagination in a way many contemporary horror creators can only dream of.