The Blair Witch Project (1999)

*. I had a bad first experience with this movie. I’d heard all the buzz — it was hard to escape at the time — and gone to see it with about five or six other people. Afterwards we stood together in the parking lot of the multiplex staring at our shoes. To say we were underwhelmed would probably be an understatement. Finally one of us (it wasn’t me) confessed he had a headache.
*. I think I felt even worse than that. I felt like I’d been had. The Blair Witch Project is often described both as the first found-footage horror film (it wasn’t, though it was pretty much solely responsible for establishing the genre) and as the first film to fully exploit an Internet marketing campaign. I can forgive the first, but not the second claim to fame.
*. The Blair Witch Project went on to become one of the most profitable movies ever made. The shooting budget was around $50,000 but post production was ten times that (it took eight days to film and eight months to edit). Box office was $250 million. Imitators looking to cash in were legion. But for the most part they didn’t because so much of that initial success was the result of the marketing, which struck me as largely a trick played on the public.
*. In short, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. In the twenty-plus years since, however, I’ve mellowed a bit. Leaving aside the marketing and cultural impact, I think Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (writers, directors, editors) made a decent little movie out of nothing. It has some genuinely scary moments, which are achieved without gore, effects of any kind, or even a witch.
*. As with the best of such indie ventures it triumphs in making a virtue out of its limitations. It’s not a movie that tries to do too much, but stays grounded in its basic premise, resulting in a film that is, in Kim Newman’s expert judgment, “naturally messy, but surprisingly consistent and to the point.” Throw in some serendipitous grace notes in the filming and you have what I think every low-budget filmmaker privately prays for: a happy accident of art.
*. Another big boost comes from Heather Donahue. On the DVD commentary track one of the voices (I believe it’s Sanchez) says “the single best decision we made in the whole thing was casting Heather.” Originally I think there were to be three male characters lost in the woods but Donahue was so impressive in her audition they decided to put her in. I don’t believe this changed the script (insofar as there was a script). It sounds sort of like the casting of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead or Sigourney Weaver in Alien in parts that weren’t specifically written for a black man or a woman. I think it’s wonderful when that kind of blind casting happens, and as such cases show you can get great results.
*. Still, after twenty years I do think it’s a film that’s getting smaller in hindsight. Of course there have been many more shaky-cam horror movies, some of them not only more expensively produced and more sophisticated but better than this. But there are other reasons for its diminishment as well.
*. In my notes on Man Bites Dog I wondered how much it mattered that the creators never went on to do much of anything else. In that case I don’t think it did, as one of them committed suicide and in any event the film was a creative one-off as well as a bit of a succès de scandale with legs. Here, however, the subsequent disappearance of the filmmakers does raise some doubts.
*. In brief, the project had a limited afterlife. There were a pair of sequels, the most immediate, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, doing so poorly with critics and audiences that plans for a third movie were quickly scrapped. Then they tried again with Blair Witch in 2016, which only performed marginally better.
*. But then the found-footage genre was soon played out as well. And how many great movies did it give us? I’d rate Rec as probably the pick of the crop. And even that franchise gave up on the gimmick before the series finished.
*. Playing “Where are they now?”, I think it’s fair to say Myrick and Sanchez haven’t done much else that’s noteworthy. Sanchez directed one of the segments in V/H/S/2 (not the best) and has worked in TV. Heather Donahue apparently retired, at least for a while, claiming that she had trouble finding work because of backlash for having done Blair Witch. This doesn’t sound right but I don’t know the details. Joshua Leonard seems to have kept working the most. He played the heavy in Unsane, where he was pretty good. But I didn’t recognize him, and that’s the only other thing I’ve seen him in.
*. More than a movie, I look back on The Blair Witch Project today as a kind of cultural moment. Like a lot of things that the Internet made popular it went viral and then sort of vanished because there really wasn’t much there in the first place. I remember it well, which is to its credit. But I don’t think I’ll be watching it again. It’s not a movie I see anything more in today than I did at the multiplex.

10 thoughts on “The Blair Witch Project (1999)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Interesting piece; like you, I was underwhelmed cinematically, although the film has fans and certainly hit a sweet spot. But I agree, it looks smaller in hindsight, and few of the key players turn in interesting work afterwards…

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      It was one of those movies where the marketing and hype were super successful, but that always bites you in the ass in the long run. Still, it was a something different at the time, and it was fun just to see such a low-budget indie film making it. That the creators couldn’t follow it up seems kind of weird, but then the whole found-footage genre was exhausted pretty quickly too. I guess there was only so far they could go with it.

      Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      It definitely had an impact when it came out. And I remember the parodies were starting within weeks. It was always on the edge of being funny, and that’s often the case with scary movies.

      Reply
      1. Maurodigital

        Well, Not all the scary movies are on the edge of being funny. Conjuring, for example, is one of those movies i had problem to watch, because it’s not funny at all. I think that, however, it’s always a personal thing: for some a movies can be scary, for other is a huge BS. However good stuff man!

      2. Alex Good Post author

        That’s an interesting example. I thought Conjuring and Conjuring 2 actually had some nice funny bits in them, and Patrick Wilson and Vera Formiga, playing their parts very straight, worked really well together as a comic ghost-busting duo. They’re effective as scary movies, but I thought they had their funny parts.

  2. Reely Bernie

    Alex, you are not alone: The hype killed this movie. I was so lucky to be a part of a test audience in Denver that had NO CLUE (absolutely no clue) that it was all “fake.” It was a spectacular experience I continue to share with my brother. Once the truth came out, people were just numb to it. Also, with so many movies like this out since, the formula and movie itself (constantly moving handhelds and yelling) gets exhausting and tedious. Great writeup on all of this. What a trend it became!

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      That would have been a great experience seeing it as a test audience. Without knowing anything about it going in I would have probably been shocked. And it still does have some staying power for being the movie that really kicked things off. But I resented the manufactured buzz at the time.

      Reply

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