Empire Masterpiece #126 – The Blair Witch Project


1999. OUT: NOW CERT. 15

“In October 1993, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.”

With these two simple sentences, displayed in stark white type on a black background, a movie phenomenon was born: a film that cost around $22,000 to shoot, grossed $250 million worldwide (excluding ancillaries like DVDs, books, comics, video games and merchandising), and ushered in the modern ‘found footage’ genre which, while it produces mostly landfill, occasionally throws up a gem like Cloverfield, Chronicle, Paranormal Activity, [Rec], V/H/S or The Bay. To demonstrate its impact, Wikipedia lists nine ‘found footage’ films made before The Blair Witch Project (notably the notorious Cannibal Holocaust), and nearly a hundred since. (Stanley Kubrick could have beaten them all, if he’d stuck with his concept of Dr Strangelove as a faux-documentary discovered by aliens far in the future, revealing how the human race blew itself up.)

In reality, no student filmmakers disappeared in Burkittsville in 1993; the footage that comprised The Blair Witch Project (“TBWP”) was mostly shot by actors Heather Donahue, Michael C Williams, Joshua Leonard – generously lending credence to the film’s it’s-all-true conceit by using their real names in the credits – under the supervision of co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. Armed with their actors, Best Buy-bought cameras and a 68-page outline (the dialogue would largely be improvised), the directors decamped to Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County, Maryland (only a few scenes were shot in Burkittsville itself) in October 1997, giving the actors just enough information to allow them to improvise the day’s scenes. It took just eight days to shoot, eight months to edit, and another eighteen months (once Artisan had acquired the $22,000 film for $1.1 million) to get it into suitable shape for its theatrical release. Not since Miramax picked up Kevin Smith’s Clerks five years earlier had such a cheaply made film changed the lives of its creators overnight.

For all the innovation of its shooting approach, TBWP took its inspiration from some pretty musty stuff. Its mythology was a witches’ brew of legend and folklore, while its narrative device was more or less lifted from the kind of turn-of-the-century horror stories in which authors such as H.P. Lovecraft would write a faux first-person account of some nameless horror, which eventually claims the hapless narrator, leaving the fragmented or unfinished tale to be discovered by someone else. (The film’s production company, Haxan Films, is named in honour of Benjamin Christensen’s silent 1922 film, a sort-of documentary about witchcraft.) In Myrick and Sánchez’s film, the doomed-narrator device is updated through the use of film cans, videotapes and DAT tapes, supposedly pieced together following their discovery, several years after Heather, Michael and Josh failed to return from their expedition. Thus, a peculiar sense of melancholy is added to the proceedings, not only because the three young, relatable protagonists are missing, presumed dead, but also because they never lived to see the success of their film. (See how it draws you in?) So convincing was the film’s ‘based-on-actual-events’ conceit that people were regularly reported to have turned up in Burkittsville, armed with their own cameras, offering to help search for Heather, Josh and Leonard – who, based on their sudden fame (not to mention profit participation), were more likely to be found in the Hollywood hills than the Blair Witch woods.

Given its incredible reception and unprecedented budget-to-box office ratio in the US, there was a danger that TBWP would be eaten by its own hype by the time it arrived on these shores several months after its US release, and well into its inevitable “pfft – call that scary?” phase. British distributor Pathé even acknowledged the backlash, running the poster tagline “Everything you’ve heard is true” as a way to fan the flames of the based-on-actual-events conceit, and to suggest that the film was worthy of the American hype. By the time it was released here, just in time for Halloween, British audiences had already been told it was the horror film of their generation, rather than being able to discover for themselves that it was (well, this or Scream), but it didn’t matter, because the film delivered. From the ingenious set-up to the unforgettable denouement, Myrick and Sánchez build tension and verisimilitude in equal parts, so that even if you go into the woods with Heather, Josh and Michael knowing “it’s only a movie,” you’ve effectively forgotten within five minutes. Instead, you’re with them as they enter the forest with just enough film, tape, snacks and batteries to keep them going for three days; as they lose their way, abandoning first the map, and then the planned documentary itself; and as they venture deeper and deeper into the woods, pursued by someone or some Thing. You see what they (or rather, their cameras) see, hear what they hear, and feel what they feel – mostly foreboding, dread and abject fear. It didn’t hurt (or, in some cases, it did) that much of the film was shot with unsteady-cam handheld cameras, which led to cases of motion sickness and actual vomiting. (William Castle would have approved.)


Admittedly, whether your reaction to the film was “that was some scary shit” or “that was super smart” depended largely on your own ability, or willingness, to suspend disbelief. Swept in to the cinema on a wave of hype, or watching years later at home, you might even have greeted the film with a resounding “Meh.” But as an exercise in making movies without money, inducing paranoia without production value, and conjuring scares without special effects, The Blair Witch Project is more than worthy of the Masterpiece mantle. Even if it was just, as the filmmakers themselves modestly suggest, “a film shot mostly on Hi-8 video in Maryland in October 1997 for 22,000 bucks by a ragtag group spending their savings and risking their already pockmarked credit ratings on one last-ditch effort to become filmmakers.”



About David Hughes: Published Work

Empire and Time Out film critic, screenwriter of award-winning drama "Where the Road Runs Out", and MD of movie marketing agency Synchronicity, and author of books about Kubrick, Lynch and films that were never made.

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