Home > Horror, Mystery > The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

People most likely to attract nasty spirits:

  • Young children
  • Mediums
  • Fake mediums
  • People trying to prove the paranormal is fake
  • People trying to prove the paranormal is real
  • Amateur documentarians

Three high school students are about to learn this last item the hard way…

The Blair Witch Project is an American horror film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, presented as a documentary pieced together from amateur footage. It stars Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams, with the supernatural talents of the rest of the production crew trying to freak them out.

In 1994, high school students Heather (Donahue), Josh (Leonard), and Mike (Williams) set out to film a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. Travelling to Burkittsville, Maryland, they interview the locals about the legend, and learn of a hermit named Rustin Parr, who kidnapped, tortured, and murdered seven children, afterwards claiming that the spirit of a witch who’d been hanged in the 18th century had been terrorizing him for a while, and that she’d promised to leave him alone if he killed them. Another Burkittsville woman, Mary Brown, tells them of an encounter she’d had with the Blair Witch as a young girl, describing the specter of a woman covered in coarse hair.

On day two, the young filmmakers hike into the woods in search of evidence of the Blair Witch’s existence, despite a fisherman’s warning that the woods are haunted (sh’yeah, right!). After filming a piece at Coffin Rock, where five men were ritually murdered in the 19th century, they camp for the night. The next day, despite feeling slightly lost, they hike further into the woods and encounter a cemetary with seven small cairns, one of which Josh accidentally disturbs, to be repaired by Heather. That night they hear strange noises in the dark but decide it’s just animals or something. Their tune changes the next day, however, when they realize they can’t find their way out of the woods, and now something unseen and angry seems to be stalking them…

When The Blair Witch Project was first released, it brought with it a small boatload of mythos, trying to hammer home the idea that the Blair Witch story was real and these three filmmakers were genuinely missing, presumed dead. The result of this is that the real-life Burkittsville in Maryland experienced a small influx of people looking for stories of the Blair Witch, only to be disappointed when told, nope, it was all made up for the movie. The whole movie was largely ad libbed, with the three leads being chosen for their improvisational abilities and given only a brief outline of the story ahead of time. Their “interviewees” were planted in strategic locations around the filming area, and clues to the next plot point were hidden on site, to be found with GPS tracking. And of course, in the scary woods scenes, none of the actors knew what was going to happen when; they were given brief notes for plot elements that directly involved them and that was it.

As a result, the finished film has a visceral, “you are there” feel to it, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the bright side, the building dread of being hunted by something unknown feels genuine because the actors really didn’t know that something would attack the tent at night, sending them running and screaming into the night. They didn’t know that the production crew would be making noises in the dark. Additionally, Heather’s much-parodied tearful apology and accepting responsibility for what was very likely to be a grim fate for all three of them really brought home the level of despair that the three of them were feeling by that point.

On the dark side, this was one of the first modern uses of the in-universe camera, and the result is often chaotic and slightly nauseating, particularly towards the second half of the film. Theater audiences reported motion sickness as a result of watching footage filmed by someone running their balls off while toting a handheld, and while it may have helped with the immersion, it turned off a lot of people. Additionally, you never actually see anything menacing the characters. Any manifestations of the Blair Witch or whatever the hell is chasing them always happens outside the camera’s eye. I liked this detail, as it let me use my imagination to dream up what was chasing them, but it might frustrate others.

In total, The Blair Witch Project probably boasts the most elaborate viral campaign of that decade. The mythos is well-detailed, and the sense of “what in the raging hell is out there with them” paints a terrifying picture of our heroes’ collective fate, but the filming style is dizzying and the lack of a concrete monster or known fate for the leads will turn many people off to this film. If you like scary ghost stories that let you scare yourself silly with your own imagination, though, I recommend you give it a shot.

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