As part of Before The Cyborgs ongoing retrospective on the films from the monumental year of 1999 Andrew Milito looks back on found footage film pioneer The Blair Witch Project.
Attendees of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival may have noticed some strange oddities regarding one particular film that year. Flyers and posters circulating around the festival announced the disappearance of three college students, who headed into the backwoods of Maryland to shoot a documentary about a local legend and never returned; festival-goers were encouraged to share any information they had. The three students were the subject of one of the films screening at the festival: The Blair Witch Project, 81 minutes of footage shot by the missing students themselves, recovered and pieced together, and proclaimed as the real deal. If one grew especially curious by the events of the film, further research into The Blair Witch Project on the Internet would lead to websites detailing police reports and the grizzly details of the history of the Blair Witch. The IMDb pages of the film’s “stars” – Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams – listed the movie as their only onscreen appearance, and proclaimed them “missing, presumed dead.”
Speculation built and built for the following six months: were the events of the film actually real? The film hit mainstream theaters in July of 1999, and the mystery was ultimately debunked. The Blair Witch Project is not real. The aforementioned information was no more than a meticulously conceived marketing campaign that used the infancy of the Internet to its advantage. The police reports were fakes and the mystery around a “Blair Witch” in Maryland was fictional lore conjured up by the film’s two film student directors. Donahue, Leonard, and Williams are alive and well and were simply playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Twenty years later, its existence as a fictional film is common knowledge, and yet, it continues to resonate. Even beyond that brilliant marketing strategy, there’s something truly special about this cinematic lightning in a bottle: the phrase is often used, but The Blair Witch Project is truly one-of-a-kind.
The Blair Witch Project offers what is perhaps one of the most inventive displays of film directing ever. With just a $60,000 budget to work with, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez dropped Donahue, Leonard, and Williams in the woods and sent them on their way: they each carried their own camera and improvised their own dialogue, only taking specific direction from notes left for them by Myrick and Sánchez that encouraged certain character actions. Information was deliberately withheld to form key dynamics between characters, and eventually, Myrick and Sánchez limited the trio’s food supply to build tension further.
But even putting that aside and viewing it as a traditional horror film, The Blair Witch Project excels through Myrick and Sánchez’s understanding of the genre. Following in the footsteps of Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, Myrick and Sánchez realize that limiting the titular terror is the best way to approach horror: the unseen is often far more horrifying than any creation conjured up through even the most detailed costumed creature or special effects creation. Arguably, the duo does so with even more restraint than Spielberg or Scott: the Blair Witch does not appear within a single frame throughout the entire 81-minute runtime. Nothing jumps out from off-camera accompanied by a booming sound effect; the horror comes from oddities that sit somewhere between reality and horror: strange stick figures that appear overnight, unexplainable voices lingering outside a tent, a mysterious cloth bag containing bloody teeth and hair.
That, paired with intricate lore conjured up by Myrick and Sánchez and smartly delivered in the expository opening scenes, helps craft the ambiguity that makes the narrative so eerie. Are the rock cairns and stick figures threats made by the Blair Witch herself? Or are the three being hunted by serial kidnapping hermit Rustin Parr? Some even theorize the entire ordeal is an elaborate plan by Mike and Josh to lure Heather into the woods and kill her themselves.
In a sense, these three performances are as close to reality as you get in film: Donahue’s famous apology scene near the end of the film carries a palpable sense of sorrow, with the famous off-center framing being a happy accident caused by her unfamiliarity with her camera; Williams’s delirious confession that he purposefully disposed the group’s map comes from a real, relatable sense of mania; Leonard’s breakdown upon the realization that the three are lost is heartbreaking and full of hopelessness. In the process, a significant section of the film serves as a painful character study of humanity’s primal instincts in the face of inevitable tragedy.
It all culminates in the film’s most frightening scene – and certainly one of the most unnerving horror endings put to screen – that infuriatingly leave all questions unanswered: Heather and Mike discover an abandoned house, where the latter hears Josh’s voice and frantically descends to the basement. Heather follows behind to see Mike facing the corner – the same way Rustin Parr forced his kidnapped children to do as they waited for their own demise – before she’s attacked by an offscreen entity and the footage ends. The grainy black-and-white footage and disorienting audio mixing (only Mike’s camera recorded audio, resulting in Heather’s screams being so distant) is a combination that makes for a chilling finale, and as such, the scene has become a piece of horror iconography.
The Blair Witch Project shook the film market in a groundbreaking way. As evidenced by two failed attempts to expand into a franchise, it’s a film that simply can’t exist today: with the sheer amount of information at our fingertips, Internet sleuths would uncover the illusion immediately. Its release in an age where such misdirection could be achieved, however, helped solidify its place as a key player in the emergence of the independent film market and as a pioneer of the found footage subgenre. Myrick and Sánchez proved to a new generation of filmmakers that in the face of budgetary constraints, all it takes is a bit of creativity to craft an effective genre piece.
Though not the first instance of a film using “found footage” as an aesthetic and narrative approach, The Blair Witch Project’s creative use of the medium paved the way for the likes of Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, and countless other low-budget horror films within the next decade. Having the film play from a first-person format throws viewers directly into the characters’ shoes, and Myrick and Sánchez make a compelling case for one particular aspect of the subgenre for which many films have faced criticism: a reason for characters to capture the events of the film on video, a point cited by Josh as he berates Heather’s constant desire to film during his breakdown.
In the wake of modern advancements in technology, filmmaking is now more accessible to nearly everyone and with the internet serving as a readily available global distribution platform – the accomplishments of The Blair Witch Project may be overlooked however its influence cannot be understated. The 90s were full of fresh auteurs from Soderbergh to Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson making low budget indie films which while critically acclaimed often struggled financially outside of niche audiences during their theatrical run. Widely credited as the first film to use the internet for viral marketing The Blair Witch Project demonstrated the potential that low budget indie cinema could have and the lasting box office appeal of the horror genre (a trend that continues to this day).
The film’s $250 million gross – one of the highest return-on-investment ratios in Hollywood box office history – was surely partially a result of its unique presentation and audience’s desire to settle the mystery, but it’s the combination of harrowing character work and realistic, chill-inducing horror that has cemented The Blair Witch Project’s place as a revolutionary piece of horror filmmaking.