Now prepare for a motion picture experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen, heard, or feared before. The Blair Witch Project follows a trio of filmmakers on what should have been a simple walk in the woods… but quickly becomes an excursion into heart-stopping terror. As the three become inexplicably lost, morale deteriorates. Hunger sets in. Accusations fly. By night, unseen evil stirs beyond their campfire’s light. By day, chilling ritualistic figures are discovered nearby. As the end of their journey approaches, they realize that what they are filming now is not a legend…but their own descent into unimaginable horror.
eyelights: its innovative concept. its execution. its creep factor.
eyesores: some of the performances.
“It’s not quite reality. It’s like a totally filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.”
Burkittsville, Maryland, is home to the legend of Elly Kedward, who was sentenced to death in 1785 for practicing witchcraft. Known as the “Blair witch” (after Burkittsville’s original name), her ghost is said by the locals to be the source of a number of ghastly incidents in the area.
In October 1994, over two hundred years after her death, filmmakers Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams went to Burkittsville to make a documentary about her. After interviewing some of the villagers, they went into the woods to find Elly’s resting place.
They were never seen again.
Thankfully, one year later, their camera equipment and other gear were found in the woods. The hours of footage that they shot on video and 16mm finally shed some light into the events that led to their disappearance. However, their ultimate fate remains a mystery to this day.
‘The Blair Witch Project’ is a truly ground-breaking motion picture. The first in an endless stream of “found footage” films, the sleeper indie hit of 1999 took the movie world by storm thanks to an unconventional promotional campaign that claimed that the eerie events it depicted were real.
Backed by a SciFi Channel faux-documentary on the legend of the Blair witch, a website dedicated to perpetuating disinformation on the creepy history of this Maryland town, and the distribution of “missing persons” posters for its three leads, it gave the illusion of being fact, not fiction.
It worked: ‘The Blair Witch Project’ scared up nearly 250 million dollars on a sixty thousand dollar production budget. This made the picture the most profitable motion picture in history at the time (a nearly 11,000 to 1 ratio), landing it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
It’s a pretty amazing success story given how unconventional the picture was back then.
Heck, even the making of the picture itself was unconventional: the Haxan Films production (named after the 1922 Benjamin Christensen faux-doc) tried to replicate its central conceit, sending Heather, Josh and Mike into the woods for days on end with only two cameras and some basic supplies.
The directors then guided the actors (who stayed in character for the whole eight-day shoot) on their journey through the woods by leaving them daily instructions in appointed places and by communicating via walkie-talkies. They would then stage the film’s incidents right in the middle of the night.
What’s great about their approach is that, even though it’s a fake documentary, in many ways it feels real: it’s very easy to believe that the trio is actually filming a documentary, that they are getting lost in the woods, and that the troubling activity around them is gradually rattling their nerves.
The players also have credible character arcs, with Heather being cocky and confident at first, and breaking down slowly, Josh being the glue that holds the group together, until he collapses, and Mike being the outsider who gets frustrated, loses his composure, and finally gets it together.
The dynamic is also credible. The three look and sound like student filmmakers: there’s a sort of half-@$$ed lack of professionalism that pervades their activities, even though Heather often insists that everything is under control. They often argue, grudgingly bury their hatchets, and carry on.
Mind you, part of that magic comes at the hands of the directors, who edited down 19 hours of footage into 90 minutes, massaging the material to give the group a better balance (ex: Josh’s performance was trimmed to make him into the peacemaker, whereas he was supposed to be in conflict).
Of course, the editing took eight months to achieve.
And it’s this kind of meticulousness that makes ‘The Blair Witch Project’ so satisfying; there’s an obvious cleverness involved in its creation and no small amount of craft. Even if the picture had made no money whatsoever, it would be a success – it just wouldn’t have influenced pop culture, is all.
In light of this, it’s surprising to see that neither Daniel Myrick nor Eduardo Sánchez hit their marks with future projects. Was it their strengths combined that created one of the most effective horror films in cinematic history? Or is it simply nearly impossible to catch lighting in a bottle, as they say?
Either way, ‘The Blair Witch’ franchise proved that: an ill-conceived, pretty much unrelated, sequel followed in 2000, got massacred by critics and made a fraction that its predecessor did, and a belated direct follow-up, ‘Blair Witch’, was released in 2016. It also failed to reignite the fans’ ardour.
A damned shame, really.
But there will always be the original around to terrorize us. Forever and always.
“You gonna write us a happy ending, Heather?”
Date of viewing: October 16, 2016