The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez figured out a way to never have to work again. In a way it was like winning the lottery since neither of them knew just how big The Blair Witch Project was going to be. Even before it came out they had already made a profit when Lionsgate bought the rights to the film and took over the promotion, and it was one of the most brilliant marketing campaigns for a movie.
Partially the campaign used word of mouth to try and make it seem like the legends of the Blair Witch, an evil spirit that supposedly haunts the woods outside of Burkittsville, Maryland, were real. Although it sounds like the type of local legend that would spring up in a rural area, Myrick and Sánchez made the whole thing up. What they did is hire three actors - Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard - to go out in the woods with a walkie-talkie and a GPS. They were given a 16mm camera and video equipment, and they did the majority of the filming, taking instructions that were left at specific drop points. Since the actors were not known at the time it was easy to make it appear as if they were actual college students who had gone missing in 1994. That's where the internet came in, hyping the story and making it seem like an Unsolved Mysteries type situation. The anticipation was increased by a fake documentary, using footage that had originally been shot for the movie, to make The Curse of the Blair Witch, that was aired on the Sci-Fi Channel.
Early audiences loved it, pirated versions (with parts that were cut from the theatrical release) circulated and people began coming to Burkittsville thinking the whole thing was real. Then the movie hit the theaters and critics fell over themselves praising it as the next revolution in horror, talking about how the spirit of independent film making was still alive and how the way movies, and especially horror films, were changed forever.
Then, there were people like me who braved crowds of meatheaded frat boys, who I normally would not have to worry about when seeing a film like this, to ultimately sit in a theater for 80 minutes only to say, "That's it?" To be honest, my cinema experience that day was not the greatest even without the film, but it seems like I had put in a lot of effort only to be told not to forget to drink my Ovaltine.
Heather is a budding documentarian who convinces her friend Josh and another man, Mike, to accompany her to Burkittsville, Maryland to do a movie about a local legend call the Blair Witch. While interviewing the townspeople they find out some of the history of the haunting, including the disappearance of children related to a local serial killer named Rustin Parr, who many think may have been supernaturally influenced by the spirit.
As part of the documentary they take an excursion into the woods to visit various locations associated with the legend. Due to several failures in properly following a map the trio gets lost. While trying to find their way out they soon become hunted by unknown forces that seem determined that they will not leave the forest alive.
While certainly a lot of what made this movie popular at the time was the marketing, what makes it effective is that it does touch on the fear of getting lost in the woods - something that, reportedly, the main cast immediately did within feet of their car, just off the road they started on, much to the directors' combined amusement and frustration. In truth they got lost a total of three times, so some of their frustration - particularly when they find they circled back to their starting point after a day's hike - is real. That palpable frustration of being helpless, combined with the noises and shocks the crew put the cast through - including providing less and less food as the shoot went on - was something many people who go camping or hiking can identify with.
What is hard to identify with are the characters. Although the dialogue was improvised the situations were scripted, including Heather's famous goodbye message. If anything that just adds to the feeling that these are three of the most annoying people, and some of the least I would want to be stuck with while lost in the woods. It's not an age gap in this case; all three cast members range within two to three years younger than me, so they would have been my peers both at the time the movie came out and when it was supposed to take place. Heather and Mike were always supposed to antagonize each other, but supposedly Heather and Josh did most of the real-life bickering. This tension between the three comes through on the screen, and it is difficult to discern when they are reacting to scripted situations or just genuinely trying to keep from killing each other. Things go south so quickly with these three that they would have been a group I would have actively avoided just because of how toxic they were.
Seeing the movie again without an annoying audience does make me appreciate it a little bit more, though I still believe there was more hype than there was actual movie. The ending is ambiguous and somewhat works, especially when compared to a number of endings that were suggested - and some shot - after Lionsgate got involved and injected some cash into post-production. Where I think the opportunity was missed, especially since they were already terrorizing the group with sounds of rocks and sticks breaking as well as ghostly children, was creating a sense that the woods themselves are against the group's escape. I think Sánchez and Myrick were partially aiming toward that in some way, but Donahue, Williams and Leonard were too busy fighting with each other and getting lost to get the gist of this.
I don't find this in any way to be an out-and-out classic; in fact, I find a good many of the Paranormal Activity films, which were inspired by this, to be better handled when it comes to found footage horror. Still, Myrick and Sánchez were able to execute their idea, and it worked out for them and seemingly worked for a good portion of the audience. I just wish the movie itself was as interesting as the fake documentary made to promote it or the whole story behind it.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Time: 81 minutes
Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard
Directors: Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick