(1999) Horror (Artisan) Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard, Bob Griffin, Jim King, Sandra Sanchez, Ed Swanson, Patricia DeCou, Mark Mason, Jackie Hallex. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Some movies are victims of their own success. The Blair Witch Project was the forerunner of the “found footage” horror film craze that dominated the horror scene in the early part of the first decade of the century. The movie became so imitated that it has become a cliché in retrospect. Perhaps that is the ultimate honor for a movie; after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
By now, most folks know the basics about the movie; three student filmmakers venture into the Maryland woods to make a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch. They vanish from the face of the Earth until a year later, when the unsettling footage is found. The marketing campaign for the movie was so brilliant – really, it was the first successful viral marketing campaign in history – that many people, myself included, thought that both the legend and the story of the filmmakers were real. The mother of actress Heather Donahue received sympathy cards from friends and acquaintances who thought her daughter was really missing.
The production, shot for less than $90K (and would return nearly $250 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films ever made to this day), wisely refrains from showing us the actual Blair Witch, or anything supernatural. Everything happens off-camera. Much of the sense of dread and fear comes from sounds in the dark; of the sensation that the hapless kids are being stalked by something in the woods. Our imagination fills in the blanks.
Does it hold up to repeated viewings? That’s another question entirely. I’ve rewatched the film several times since first seeing it in a theater back in 1999 when it came out and to be honest, the experience doesn’t quite measure up to the one of a theater full of people seeing the movie for the first time. I would guess that it would be hard to re-create that environment nowadays, even with reduced capacities in the theaters due to the pandemic. I think much of the power of the film comes from the nagging feeling that what you are seeing actually happened and that the three kids that you’re watching fall apart in the woods are real kids who are no longer with us. That adds an emotional wallop that no amount of CGI can duplicate.
For all its flaws, The Blair Witch Project stands as a watershed horror film, the kind that comes along once in a generation. Likely we won’t see the like again for a long time, the kind of film that changes the game for horror films in general. In fact, the movie would shift horror films away from the torture porn that dominated horror box office at the time to lower budget atmospheric horror movies that made a connection to the real world that the viewer lives in. The true horror is not in monsters and demons and ghosts; the true horror comes from This could happen.
REASONS TO SEE: The rare occasion where a marketing campaign enhanced a movie. The three then-unknown actors were all perfectly believable. Genuinely terrifying.
REASONS TO AVOID: Original premise, although it hasn’t held up largely because it was so oft-imitated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie proved to be so popular that it nearly ruined the area’s 1999-2000 hunting season due to so many fans flocking to the woods to shoot their own documentaries.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Sling TV, TBS, TNT, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paranormal Activity
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Yellow Rose