“Is that a Stick Figure left by The Blair Witch, or are you just Happy to see me?”
It’s hard to think of a modern era horror movie that has been more maligned than The Blair Witch Project. The Scream series is the only other thing that comes close but the original Scream still maintains its luster with most people. The Blair Witch is loved by a few, complained about by most, and vehemently hated by a large segment of horror fans. I am happy to say that I am in the minority that loves it.
Even the movies staunchest critics will generally acknowledge that it was novel in its approach. It didn’t create the found footage genre (Cannibal Holocaust is generally considered to be the first that uses the gimmick) but it was the first film of its kind to be presented like a documentary. The marketing campaign in and of itself might be the most important part of Blair Witch. It was the first movie to truly make use of the internet as a viral tool. The filmmaker’s set-up a website that told the entirely fictional legend of the Blair Witch, and of the three people who had disappeared in 1994 while making a documentary about the legend.
A quick synopsis for the under rock livers in the audience: the Blair Witch, according to the movie, is a local legend around Burkittsville Maryland. In 1994 three film students go into the forest that the Blair Witch supposedly resides in to film a documentary. They never come out. One year later their footage is recovered and the film presented is the actual footage that was found.
The beauty of The Blair Witch Project is how much the filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, did with the limited resources they had. They were working with actors who didn’t have much experience, their budget was minimal (around $30,000 initially), and they were shooting on 16MM film cameras. In today’s world of digital film and of editing equipment on every computer, it’s easy to forget how big of an undertaking an independent film truly was.
“I Remember Hearing about the Blair Witch When I was a Kid.”
When The Blair Witch project was released to theaters in 1999 it got a staggered roll out due to the independent nature of the movie. It had made quite a stir at the Sundance Film Festival that year and it was already being lauded by critics. My brother lived in Maryland at the time and I had gone to visit him the week that it opened. We decided to go see it.
Burkitsville was fairly close to where he lived so it had an even bigger profile than elsewhere in the country. This meant that the theater was packed with people not only wanting to see a horror movie but also wanting to see a familiar locale up on the big screen. As the lights dimmed the expectations were high and the movie did not disappoint. As the end credits rolled the crowd was still gasping and trying to get a handle on what they had just seen. One of my favorite experiences is a good horror movie viewed with a good crowd, and this was one of the best crowds I’ve ever been a part of.
In the ensuing weeks the profile of the movie continued to build. It wouldn’t make it to my hometown for another month or so but the hype machine for the movie had worked. Several people I knew were talking about how it was a real documentary while others were saying that they had heard it was all just a set-up. One of my best friends even tried to convince me that he had been hearing about the Blair Witch since he was a kid (in his defense, I’m pretty sure he was confusing the Blair Witch with the local Tennessee spook, the Bell Witch). The Blair Witch Project had successfully created its own mythology with seeming effortlessness and had become a runaway hit to boot. It would wind up making over 200 million dollars worldwide on a final budget of under a million.
The film would spawn a litany of media tie-ins, a rash of imitators for years to come, and a hastily made sequel released a year later called Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. The sequel was such a snooze fest that I turned it off after a half an hour so I can’t really give a solid review of it. If you need a sleep aid then find a copy. Go on. I’ll wait.
“No Redneck is this Creative.”
When a movie is as big as the Blair Witch project ended up being, a backlash is inevitable. The first time I can remember noticing one starting was around the time of the film’s release on video. Suddenly the movie that less than a year earlier had been creepy and scary was now being called flat and boring. The same people that were jumping out of their skins upon first viewing were now deriding the film as being a gimmick. The unfortunate thing about The Blair Witch project is that the stigma that attached itself to the film has never really gone away.
Of course the movie was built on a gimmick. Who cares? When a gimmick works it can be great. The Blair Witch Project not only employed a great gimmick but it pulled it off with ease. It’s almost as if people got pissed at the movie for being too clever. Paranormal Activity would suffer virtually the same fate a decade later.
Another oft cited shortcoming of the film is the amateur style used. To this argument I offer no advice other than go make your own movie if you think you can do better. To me The Blair Witch Project belongs in the same league as El Mariachi. Both films took their budgetary and stylistic limitations and not only overcame them, but made them an advantage.
This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the release of The Blair Witch Project and I for one think that it is time for a reassessment. The film rises above its own limitations and enters into the pantheon of other low-budget horror classics like Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, and The Evil Dead. So set up your tent, get your weird stick figure out and whatever you do, don’t stand in the corner!