Cult Classic: The Blair Witch Project
If you go down to the woods today, you're probably not in for a big surprise - unless you have an undiscovered allergy to pollen. However, three actors' trip gave audiences the fright of their lives in 1999.
Even the staunchest defender of the horror genre will admit that there are very few films that transform their passion. Even then, films such as Saw (heralding the arrival of so-called “torture porn”) and Paranormal Activity (the return of extremely low budget “found footage” flicks) quickly become studio franchises with successive yearly installments until all creativity is drained.
In the 1990s, however, horror was in rude health after the release of Scream, Wes Craven’s masterful attempt to introduce postmodern scares that understood and confounded its target audience’s expectations. A few years later for The Blair Witch Project in 1999, horror fans knew that the genre would never be the same.
In today’s world of Twitter, Facebook and obsessive message boards, secrets don’t stay very long yet filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez produced the biggest budget-to-box office hit of all time by creating a psychological horror film that convinced a large segment of the audience that what they were witnessing is real.
Originally conceived by the two back in 1994, it’s necessary to retell just how Myrick and Sanchez achieved their results on just a budget of $20,000 and how they brought “found footage” to the masses.
Centred around a fictional mythological menace known as the Blair Witch, the film focuses on three student filmmakers who apparently went missing while hiking in the Black Hills of Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary based on the witch herself.
What the audience watch is "recovered footage" that was filmed by three improvisational actors (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C Williams) who had the wits scared out of them by the directors during just eight days of filming.
Unbeknownst to the actors, the "townspeople" filmed prior to the hiking were actually planted actors, while each of the three cast members actually believed that the mythology behind the film was actually real - as they had no script and instead read a 35-page mythological outline of the plot before filming.
If you're wondering why their reactions to the townspeople appear to ring true or how they appear so frightened when they hear unnerving noises in the woods (created by the directors while hidden); there's your answer.
With such realistic reactions from the cast, it’s no surprise that early footage of the film tricked many viewers into believing that they were witnessing actual events. Indeed, a clever website campaign – not to mention that the actors’ character names appeared on IMDb as “missing, presumed deceased” – only ratcheted up the belief that the movie was real, which made the experience even more terrifying.
Granted, maybe folks were a little more gullible back in 1999 but when TV3 can run Psychic Readings Live five nights a week this month, perhaps not much has changed.
Viewed today, The Blair Watch Project holds up remarkably well. Much like Paranormal Activity – which aped its formula for its own commercial success – the scares rely on the audience’s sense of disbelief. Wisely, the witch herself is never shown on-screen, meaning that the mysterious and extremely effective ending holds many interpretations among viewers, some more disturbing than others.
Like every single horror success, however, the film's studio saw a gigantic worldwide box office of $248 million and promptly ran the franchise into the ground in record time.
Rushed to cinemas just one year later, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 grossed 80 per cent less than its predecessor and ignored the lessons Blair Witch had created, with a big budget, plenty of effects and no attempt at basing the film's events in any semblance of reality. Unsurprisingly, the franchise has not been reawakened since, though rumours persist of a reboot.
So while the Blair Witch herself has been staring at the corner of a wall for the past twelve years (*cough* third act reference *cough*), the film’s legacy lives on in the legion of “found footage” releases that have attempted to follow on from its success.
As the first and arguably best, it’s gratifying to know that The Blair Witch’s Project ability to scare the pants off newcomers remains undiminished even thirteen years on.
For more cult films, check out the Jameson Cult Film Club.