The Blair Witch Project – USA, 1999

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The Blair Witch Project is a 1999 American horror film written and directed by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick. It was produced by the Haxan Films production company and uses the narrative device of purporting to be ‘found footage’ filmed by it’s three main characters; although this was already a well-used technique, it has since become one of the most imitated techniques in the horror genre.

Before settling on the final title, it was also known as The Blair Witch Tapes and The Black Hills Project. It features Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams.

The plot follows three students as they relocate to the sleepy town of  Burkittsville, Maryland (a real place, with a population of 151, as of the 2010 census) to make a documentary about a local legend concerning the titular Blair Witch. We are informed at the beginning that the footage we are watching was discovered a year after the three students went missing and consists of everything recorded by the group.

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Before the film shifts to the familiar wooded location, the students take time to interview some of the local residents for their stories about the witch. We hear that the legend stretches as far back as the 18th Century and the hanging of a witch called Elly Kedward.

Successive stories tell of a hermit named Rustin Parr, who murdered five children in the 1940’s, later to claim insanity by virtue of being driven to the evil deeds by the old witch’s spirit. Parr had instructed each child to stand in the corner of the room whilst they listened to the other children being murdered, one-by-one.

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On the second day, interviews wrapped up, they venture into the woods to look for actual evidence of the Blair Witch. Despite warnings from the locals that previous meddlings had resulted in catastrophe, the press ahead, setting up camp before investigating an old cemetery.

After dislodging an oddly stacked stone effigy, they begin to hear noises at night and something is clearly not quite right. The following day, they realise their map is missing and that they are hopelessly lost, walking in circles, despite their best efforts to find safety. At night the noises become more horrific, the snapping of sticks and snapping of twigs now married with unearthly groans and children’s unintelligible voices. There is also the small matter of more cairns, missing possessions and ‘slime’ smothered on their belongings.

The following morning, one of their party is found to have gone missing during the night; they frantically search for him but despite hearing his distant screams and finding a nice parcel containing his tongue, teeth and sundry bodily furniture, he remains illusive.

As the situation gets ever more desperate, they find more and more crudely-fashioned stick icons, until, at the very edge of madness they locate an old dilapidated house – desperate to find their missing friend, they enter the house, only to find the legends were rather more real than they had bargained for…

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Rarely has a horror film divided fans and critics alike as much as The Blair Witch Project; sitting on the fence was not an option, either you loved it or hated it (or you hadn’t seen it).

Much of the film’s success rested on the groundwork done before the film was even released. Working with the $22,000 budget (a pinch of salt may be required here, let’s just agree it wasn’t very much), the filmmakers realised that their best chance of getting any coverage at all was to put a marketing strategy in place that would capture the public’s (and media’s) imagination. Lo, an online website was created alerting everyone to the ‘fact’ that three film students had genuinely gone missing whilst researching the story of the witch.

Subsequently, every update was played with a completely straight bat, there was no blood, no guts, purely a concerned tone as to their well-being, all wrapped up nicely as, of course, the environs of their escapades were indeed a real place. By the time the film was actually released, it had become one of the most anticipated horror films for years, breaking out to a wider audience than many cinema releases in the genre.

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Another factor affecting the film’s success is that to a large extent, the actors themselves were a victim of the marketing of the film, given only a brief outline of the witch (that they believed to be an actual local legend) and asked to improvise their lines with only prompts from the director. The things that went bump in the night were not planned and were designed to put the actors on edge; by the end of filming all three actors were emotionally and physically drained.

Ultimately grossing a staggering $248,639,099 worldwide, the film led to the actors struggling to get work for some time afterwards, Heather’s performance in particular leading her to become so recognisable she remained a victim of typecasting. With a largely diegetic soundtrack and, slight spoiler alert, no visible monster, the film leaned on age-old universal fears – being lost, ‘the thing under the bed’ and the unknown.

The lost-footage angle was used at least as far back as Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 landmark film Cannibal Holocaust but was the first to utilise it for such a mainstream release.

As such, it has become much-imitated (and Heather’s snot-nosed panic, parodied) in films such as Cloverfield, REC, Paranormal Activity and The Bigfoot Tapes, to name but a few disparate examples (not to mention an adult version, The Bare Bitch Project). Very few of these have come anywhere near something as accomplished as Blair Witch – even basic elements like film students being able to hold a camera still for longer than ten seconds and why anyone would be filming the footage in the first place are now routinely ignored and have become a blight to the genre.

The Blair Witch Project is an intense movie experience and despite the best efforts of a staggeringly incompetent sequel, remains a horror classic.

Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA

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