The Blair Witch Project reintroduced a fear of the unknown into a genre more often prone to overt manifestations of evil.
In 1999, nobody had seen anything like The Blair Witch Project before. Sure, epistolary storytelling within the horror genre dates back at least as far as Bram Stoker. And within cinema, the found footage technique was first pioneered in 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, even though that otherwise execrable exploitation flick actually only screened the grisly contents of its supposed lost canisters as a film-within-a-film, and for less than half its runtime. But when fledgling filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez concocted a local legend about the curse of a persecuted 18th century witch, hired a trio of non-actors to play fictionalized versions of themselves and proceeded to run them around in the woods for eight days, they struck upon a winning formula that would go on to make found footage as much a horror staple in the 2000s as the slasher sub-genre was in the ‘80s.
The numbers don’t lie. Myrick and Sánchez, who originally set out hoping to just land their little movie on cable, dazzled audiences at Sundance and turned a project with a $60,000 budget into a nearly $250 million box office draw that terrified, confounded and perhaps even nauseated audiences. The shaky camera aesthetic of frightened documentarians running through the woods at night may have proved somewhat divisive, but the largely improvised dialogue and not altogether feigned anxiety and disorientation of its principal cast brought a sense of realism that horror had sorely lacked in the preceding years.
Myrick and Sánchez, realizing that documentaries about murders and other atrocities are often more spine-tingling than fictional scary movies, pulled out all the stops in making The Blair Witch Project seem genuine. They developed an elaborate marketing campaign of missing persons posters, fake interviews and police reports and splashed it all on a promotional website in the early days of the internet, before the word “viral” had taken on its current meaning in our pop cultural lexicon. In fact, IMDb listed the core cast of Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard as “missing, presumed dead” for a full year following the film’s release.
Of course, all this ingenious marketing wouldn’t have amounted to much if the film didn’t deliver. Even 20 years later, The Blair Witch Project succeeds as an exercise in psychological horror as compelling as its supernatural element may also be. The playful rapport between Heather, Mike and Josh in early scenes roaming the Maryland countryside and interviewing yokels they only half believe devolves into claustrophobia, hostility and outright panic as they find themselves within the inescapable vortex of the witch’s woods. Heather’s initial fussiness about getting the right shot, and her stilted delivery as a wannabe documentarian, morph into a compulsion to keep the cameras rolling even as impending doom looms larger. In the intervening years, the notorious upshot of Heather’s leaking nostril as she tearfully apologizes into the camera may have been relentlessly parodied to the point of losing its potent sense of desperation upon first watch, but overall the film crew’s creeping sense of dread and interpersonal sparring feels so effective because—in large part due to the improvisational dialogue of quasi-actors who were actually disoriented in the woods—it’s so believable.
Keeping the witch hidden, even in the film’s climactic scene in the basement of an abandoned house where Mike and Heather presumably meet their ends, may be the best decision Myrick and Sánchez made. By preserving the mystery of the witch’s appearance—something the woeful 2016 sequel Blair Witch notably failed to do—the filmmakers allow the viewers’ minds to run wild. With the group initially hearing snapping twigs at night, and finding creepy cairns built around their tents and stick figures hung in trees, the possibility exists the source of their torment is not paranormal at all, but could simply be the result of menacing townsfolk stalking them—such a possibility exists throughout Bobcat Goldthwait’s derivative 2014 found footage bigfoot movie Willow Creek. But as Josh disappears and his agonized voice seems to emanate from the woods at night as a kind of bait, and as Mike ultimately finds his way into the corner of a basement like the doomed children of local folklore, the supernatural element is all but confirmed. But aside from thrusting the found footage technique to the forefront of horror, reintroducing a fear of the unknown into a genre more often prone to overt manifestations of evil may be The Blair Witch Project’s most enduring legacy.