THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
As someone wise once said, ‘Genius is the ability to point out the obvious’. In every art medium auteurs have pondered just how many more pieces of original material can be extracted from the human mind, how many new songs are there to write, how many new stories to tell. But just when you think you’ve seen it all a fresh idea arrives. Strikingly obvious and stunningly brilliant, you wonder how it was that no one came up with the idea before.
Cinema is fueled by the ability to make an audience suspend their disbelief, to take them out of the cinema auditorium and put them somewhere else. This is doubly important for scary movies with so many of them presenting events far outside one’s realm of belief. Seeking new and inventive ways to scare an audience is therefore a high priority for the horror director. Every once in a while a filmmaker will come up with something so new audiences are taking completely by surprise. In 1999 novice writer / directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez came up with just such a unique premise and ensured that the twentieth century went out on a scary movie high when they unleashed their film The Blair Witch Project (1999) on to an unprepared cinema going world.
Prior to the release of The Blair Witch Project Myrick and Sanchez were budding filmmakers attending the University of Central Florida’s film school. United by their common interests, they set about creating a short film in a bid to impress their fellow classmates and tutors. It was entitled Fortune and was about a witch. Unfortunately the movie ended up costing them a fortune and was never completed; but the seed of an idea had been sown.
After graduating the pair created their own production company called Haxan. Far from being a fast-track to Hollywood, the closest the duo got to success was making display videos for the restaurant chain Planet Hollywood. Cinema screens at the time were becoming chock full of sardonic horror films, seeking to bask in the glow of the post-modern success of Scream (1996). Suspecting another band-wagon rush of ever decreasing quality Myrick and Sanchez discussed the idea of making a horror film that would ditch the satirical baggage and concentrate on one solid ideal; to scare the audience senseless, plain and simple. To achieve this, they settled on a very unique filming premise. But first they needed a story to tell.
Going down the woods for a big surprise is a ditty that the horror film has been paying lip service to since the idea of the macabre and the moving picture were first spliced together, and it’s easy to see why. For a character to be in peril they need to be placed somewhere where the chance of helpful intervention is unlikely. It also helps if the venue comes with its own ready-made atmosphere, preferably a dread inducing one. A forest is perfect; miles from anywhere, pitch black at night, a blanket of creepy foliage during the day, and silence when the soundtrack calls for it. It is also a fantastic money saver. There is no need for set dressing when Mother Nature has taken care of it all for you.
Looking to keep their own costs low, Myrick and Sanchez had found their setting, Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland. But placing some characters in the middle of the woods and having them chased by a masked villain did not exactly scream originality. The co-directors needed a hook, and not one of the pointed and rusting variety.
The main aim of their movie was to scare an audience witless through sheer realism. It was in chewing over this idea that the pair struck gold. They concocted the story of three student filmmakers lost in the woods, their footage later found by investigators (the excellent documentary The Curse Of The Blair Witch tells of how the footage is found underneath some ancient rocks at the base of an old hut, excavated by a small archaeological team on a dig in the woods); and what better way to make the footage seem real than to shoot it on bog-standard handheld cameras.
In retrospect, it seems such an obvious idea, but at the time it was considered a risky move. If Myrick and Sanchez were to get their movie into mainstream theatres they would need their audiences to accept that what they would be watching would be eighty minutes of home-movie footage, off-kilter angles and hand-shakiness included. It was a far braver choice than many Hollywood studios were willing to make at the time, and indeed subsequently. But the astounding box office profit The Blair Witch Project made showed that audiences loved the idea.
With their plan in place, Myrick and Sanchez needed to find three unknown actors to fill the lead roles. They did well in selecting Heather Donohue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard. It would take broad shoulders and strong improvisational skills to handle the unique nature in which the film would be made.
The co-directors had worked on a previous project with the former special-forces Sergeant turned film producer Gregg Hale and when it came to their debut feature length film he gave the pair some key advice on how to get the footage they needed in the can. During his military training Hale took part in week long prisoner-of-war camp scenarios. Troops would be put through as much discomfort as possible in order to prepare them for a live situation. Small directions would be left in strategic places on the vast training area for the soldiers to follow so that the training officers could move them to their required spots each day.
Hale suggested that the directors hand the cameras over to their three actors and send them off into the woods. Myrick and Sanchez would then leave instructions for the actors during the night detailing what sort of footage they wanted from them the next day and what direction they wanted the actors to proceed in. Other than that, the actors were given free reign as to how they wanted to proceed, ad-libbing and improvising the dialogue and recording hours of footage each day. This footage would then be edited down to string together the tale of what happened to these lost film students. It was a shooting method that placed a lot of pressure on the three actors, with the entire movie resting on their ability to ad-lib, act, and shoot footage simultaneously.
The shoot was not without its physical strains either. The actors were made to feel increasingly uncomfortable, in line with how their characters were suffering, as the shoot went on. Food supplies got smaller by the day until the last two days when Donohue and Williams survived on one apple and one nutrient bar. Sleeping was difficulty, not just because of the cold and damp, but by the constant disturbances from the film crew doing their best to freak the actors out with random tent shaking and weird noises. If Donohue, Williams and Leonard look genuinely stressed by the end of the picture it’s because they were.
Things were no easier for the film crew who not only worked during the day but also had to become the Blair Witch menace at night, waiting for the actors to fall asleep in their tent before setting about spooking them some more. The usual perils of the woods were magnified tenfold. When the actors were required to run from their tent in the pitch black, the film crew had to ensure that none of them were impaled on a rogue tree or poked out an eye on an unseen branch. Such guerrilla filmmaking was tough, especially as no one had any idea how the resulting footage would look. Little did they know that this week long romp in the woods would result in one of the best horror movies ever created.
In terms of bridging the gap between screen and audience, The Blair Witch Project made the leap like no picture before it. We do not go anywhere during the film unless it is with our lead characters. Often we are placed right in the shoes of cameraman Josh as he treks through the woods with Heather and Michael. And when the tension begins to creep up a notch or ten, when we hear an odd noise to our left or right we turn to investigate, just as the action on screen does. It is claustrophobic in the extreme and there is no respite through the entire running time. Having been told that the film is an actual truth just makes proceedings all the more uncomfortable, and even if you’re not entirely fooled by this white-lie it’s still harrowing to watch Donohue and Williams mentally unravel as a result of the harsh conditions under which the movie was made.
It would have been easy for a movie with such a basic filming concept to be devoid of flair, but because of the way the movie is presented it creates its own unique, albeit stripped down style. The use of 16mm black and white footage, sprinkled carefully throughout the movie, created an eerie contrast with the natural hues of the camcorder footage. It’s used to greatest effect when the group come across the stickmen effigies. Hanging from trees and floating on the breeze, these simple but eerie figures inadvertently became a great advertising image once distributor Artisan realised they had a minor masterpiece on their hands.
Wisely, Myrick and Sanchez chose not to have a film score accompanying the action on screen. Just as there would be no orchestral accompaniment for the three film students, we receive no musical cues either. This aural void is filled with some of the scariest sound effects you’ll hear in a film. The crying of children during the night time segments of the movie is particularly disturbing. In essence, we are the film students getting lost in the woods, being subjected to the same horrors the central trio experience at the hands of the Blair Witch.
Or not as the case may be. As you might imagine, the chances of the film students capturing the Blair Witch on camera would have been remote, and we get no such cheesy reveal here either. It’s simply left to the bare footage of what you might have expected to have been captured to reveal what happens. Whether it’s the shaking of the tent, the creepy sound effects, a foreboding stone pile, or a glimpse of a mystery, bloody package, you’ll be crying out for clearer, more revealing footage to settle your jangled nerves. Even the fractured and off-the-cuff dialogue exchanged between the friends is a chilling reminder of just what the viewer is witnessing; the recovered footage of three people who vanished without trace. It is a terrifying but wonderful conceit.
That having been said, due to the nature of the filming methods Sanchez and Myrick used, the resulting movie was not without fault. Similar to the cinematic hysteria The Exorcist (1973) caused upon release, it was rumoured that some people were having to leave the theatre to be sick during showings of The Blair Witch Project. And while the publicity did the film no harm at all, these bouts of nausea were not caused by excessive gore or a witches curse, but by the more extreme bouts of jerky onscreen action. Watching shaky camcorder footage on your television is one thing but seeing it on fifty foot high cinema screen was too much for some viewers. Even so, when you consider the total cost of making the movie was a mere $40,000, the occasional woozy audience member was a small price to pay.
Just as the production budget was tiny, Myrick and Sanchez knew that they wouldn’t have millions of dollars to spend on promoting their movie either. As such they resorted to an, at the time, un-tapped resource for film promotion, the internet. The co-directors set up their own website, providing information about their forth-coming “documentary” film made up of supposed found footage. By word of mouth alone the story of The Blair Witch Project spread.
Was this story true or was it fake? Other fan-made internet sites began to spring up discussing the phenomenon and the three missing film students, and all before the film had received its final edit. Distributor Artisan picked up the rights to the movie and arranged for some initial college screenings. Reaction was impressive, too good in fact; some patrons were not sure whether what they had witnessed was a fictional movie or an actual real documentary. The directors did nothing to clear up the confusion. Heather Donohue’s family even received letters of condolence from people believing that she really had disappeared.
Even the ‘Holy Grail’ of internet film news the IMDB (Internet Movie Database) was fooled; they initially listed the film’s star trio as deceased until they were informed that the film was in fact a hoax. When the movie was finally given a full scale release audiences flocked to see it in tremendous number. As the tiny independent movie began to rake in its millions the young co-directors could not believe their luck. Both they and their film became a phenomenon, the one movie of 1999 that you had to go and see.
Whilst the obvious scares garnered from the film’s mock cinema verité style are plain to see and worked incredibly well on first viewing, horror fans were delighted that repeat viewings revealed depth beyond the movie’s unique concept. You realise that the trio of film students are far from the blonde, slender, hunky college types most Hollywood studios would have placed in the roles; all the more believable they are for it to. There are also some terrific exchanges between the trio, all improvised, that unwittingly reveal more about the three characters than perhaps was intended. We learn of Heather’s drive and dangerous naivety, Michael’s biting sarcasm used to hide an ever decreasing grip on reality, and we see Josh turn from alpha-male to withdrawn observer. In these raw moments of exposure we learn more than enough about each character to really care about them when the time comes for them to run for their lives.
The opening lead-in to the forest expedition is expertly handled. We’re anxious even before the trio leave the safety of their car thanks to some foreboding interview footage with the Burkitsville locals. To prepare for the interviews, Myrick and Sanchez did not tell Donohue which of the people wandering the town’s streets were planted actors and which ones were actual locals. Donohue thus had to conduct her interviews just as Heather would have done. Providing just enough background information on the Blair Witch to set the scene, these introductory snippets also leave the viewer with just the right amount of ambiguity as to the nature of the Witch. In amongst the scramble of information though is a line that once heard is slotted away for future reference. ‘He took the kids down in to the basement by twos, and he made one face in to the corner …’.
The line, although registered and acknowledged, doesn’t resonate until the very last shot of the movie. Coming at the end of what is a truly terrifying finale, the last shot of the film lands hard as you realise just what is implied by the odd sight that Heather is greeted with in the cellar. Possibly one of the creepiest shots ever seen in a horror movie purely for the implications it has for our heroine, it was the perfect end to the one hour twenty minutes of ever increasing terror.
To say that Myrick and Sanchez achieved their goal of creating an undiluted scary movie would be an understatement. It wasn’t just horror fans who spent their money on seeing it either; the movie became one of those rare fright films that jumped the divide and pulled in cinema goers who usually avoided horror movies. It was a talking point film you had to go and see, and people did, earning the movie a massive $140million take in 1999 alone. By the end of the year The Blair Witch Project was the tenth highest grossing movie that year behind such blockbuster releases as Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace (1999), The Matrix (1999), and Toy Story 2 (1999), an astounding achievement for a tiny, low budget, independent horror film.
But with great success comes great expectation. Within weeks of release Myrick and Sanchez were pushed for a sequel to their film. But wanting to wait until the interest in all things Blair Witch had died down, the duo declined. Eager to cash in on their surprise success Artisan pressed on without the original creators and hired documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger to direct Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000). The film was released a year on from The Blair Witch Project but sadly lacked all of the originality and frights that made it a success. The found footage approach was ditched for a more traditionally shot movie. The thin plot followed a group of fans fascinated by the cult surrounding the actual Blair Witch film. The group head out in to the Black Hills where the film was set to explore the mythology but are beset by supernatural happenings.
For a film as unique and terrifying as The Blair Witch Project a sequel was always going to have an impossible task in matching what was achieved. Book of Shadows, while starting with a relatively interesting concept of a film about a film, soon descends in to well-worn horror film cliché. Myrick and Sanchez stated at the time of the original film’s release that they would like to film a prequel, telling the story of the original Blair Witch. Artisan would have been better served trusting the creators of their monster success; Book of Shadows limped to a $40million box office take off of a $15million budget and a would-be horror franchise was killed.
For nine years at least. In 2009 Myrick and Sanchez began talks with Lionsgate about making a direct sequel to their original film, but despite early promise and promotion, the project stalled. Eventually Lionsgate took the idea of a direct sequel to the 1999 original forward on their own and hired Simon Barrett to produce a script. His screenplay was given to Adam Wingard to direct and Blair Witch (2016) eventually hit cinemas in 2016. Whilst the found footage method of filming was used again, bringing with it more effective scares than Book of Shadows managed to create, too many new twists were added, including showing the Witch itself. Leaving the Blair Witch menace in the shadows was infinitely more terrifying than what was shown in Wingard’s movie, a typical J-horror inspired, CGI rendered hag which produced more shrugs than screams from horror fans. Another so-so box office performance proved once again that Myrick and Sanchez’s film really was a one-of-a-kind hit, and not all horror film success stories should give rise to a horror film franchise.
Off of the back of The Blair Witch Project’s achievements and large amount of press coverage the film received, it was argued that Myrick and Sanchez were not the first to exploit the use of handheld camera footage to scare an audience. As far back as 1980 Italian director Ruggero Deodato utilised the concept of the fake documentary for Cannibal Holocaust (1980), though his aim seemed to be to nauseate rather than to scare. Then in 1998 just a year before Blair Witch arrived a similarly low budget movie entitled The Last Broadcast (1998) received a limited release.
The movie concerned an amateur filmmaker investigating the ‘Jersey Devil’ murder of 1996 in which a television presenter died in the middle of a live show. The show itself came from the middle of a forest where the presenter was trying to make contact with the supernatural. The film does share a few similarities with The Blair Witch Project but instead of utilising all out handheld footage the film mixes camcorder footage with standard movie presentation. As such the claustrophobic sense of menace that the Blair Witch created is not invoked anywhere near as clearly.
Post Blair Witch Project, despite the astounding profit that was garnered the unique filming technique used by Myrick and Sanchez was not repeated; those expecting a handheld horror explosion were disappointed. It took another nine years before director Matt Reeves hit shaky-cam pay dirt once again with the release of his monster movie Cloverfield (2008). Even then, the accomplishment was only a fraction of what Sanchez and Myrick brought to the scary movie genre.
Remembering Sanchez and Myrick’s original objective, to create a movie that really scared an audience, they over achieved in the most tremendous and terrifying way. Their solution to the problem of creating a realistically scary movie may have been an obvious one looking back now, but at the time it was a move of movie-making genius. There is no late nineties, post-modern noodling here, no marquee name at the top of the credits, no CGI, no soundtrack, no cliches, and no strive to be the horror conformist. Instead we have the pleasure of a pure candid scare fest, where every moment, every facet of its production is geared towards the one aim of frightening an audience with all the power it can muster.
See also Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows (2000), Blair Witch (2016)