The Classics of Horror #19 – The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Only a few movies on this long-lasting list are ground-breaking enough to having given popularity to an entire sub-genre. One of them is The Blair Witch Project, responsible for the endless stream of found-footage flicks that came out ever since 1999. Thank you *insert sarcasm here*.

This entirely shot on camera, late 90s film is also famous for its lack of conventional plot and proper action, which makes its success and great receptions even more amazing.

TBWP 1The film follows three student filmmakers (Heather, Joshua and Leonard, playing themselves) who hike in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland, in 1994 to make a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch. The three disappear, but their video and sound equipment (along with most of the footage they shot) is discovered a year later; the “recovered footage” is the film the viewer is watching. Something that has now become trite and tiresome for us, modern audience.

Despite all of that, The Blair Witch Project is a complex work which influence depends on many factors: originality, marketing, filming style, storyline, production and execution.

Originality. Although Cannibal Holocaust (1980) had created the found-footage style long before, it’s with TBWP that this sub-genre gained popularity and spawned tons of imitators, not only within the horror genre.

Execution and filming style. However, this film still stands out among the others for a specific reason: it never, ever betrays its premise. According to the found-footage manual, in fact, the viewer is watching a real recording; TBWP doesn’t polish anything and makes the audience believe what they’re watching is entirely true. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, the creators, utilised amateur cameras and actual locations to film the movie: without editing out glitches, polishing sounds and background noises, the final product feels 100% real.

TBWP 3Marketing. This idea of showing people actual events recorded on camera, has been strengthened by the directors through a great marketing campaign. As such, it’s widely known how the filmmakers made advertising efforts to promulgate the events in the film as factual, including the distribution of flyers at festivals asking viewers to come forward with any information about the “missing” students! Furthermore, TBWP benefitted from the first viral advertising campaign on the Internet. An idea that the Paranormal Activity franchise shamelessly ripped off a few years later.

TBWP 2Production. In order to maintain the aura of reality around the film, the three main characters (who aren’t professional actors) improvised most of the dialogues during the making-process. Also, they actually went into the woods without any crew and they filmed every single shot themselves. The directors tagged along during those phases, but never intervened on the filming aspect of TBWP.

Storyline. SPOILERS HERE! Since the goal of the movie was to make people believe in the truthfulness of what they were sitting through, the storyline is basically non-existent. We follow the three aspiring filmmakers walking around, we never get to see the titular Blair Witch, we aren’t even sure whether she’s real or just an urban legend. Clearly, this aspect pissed off (and keeps disappointing) many viewers. In all fairness, the storyline is indeed the weakest part of TBWP, but also the one that makes people perceive it as actual events.

As a result of all of that, we have an unconventional mockumentary that surely isn’t the most entertaining movie ever (quite the opposite), but definitely looks and feels unique.

For example, even though I usually despise found-footage films, there are a few titles I’d rather watch instead of TBWP. However, movies like [REC] (2007), Cloverfield (2008) and Chronicle (2012) – just to name a few flicks in found-footage fashion that I like – never once felt real to me. Sure, they stay truthful to the universe they set up, they’re highly watchable and incredibly entertaining; but I watch them knowing they are movies. A feeling I never get with The Blair Witch Project.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t light-heartedly suggest to watch this film, but it honestly deserves its spot in the history of horror cinema and, for a cinephile, it’s a delight to look at.