“In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary…A year later their footage was found.”
In the summer of 1997 word spread fast online and in the media about a movie so terrifying that audience members were throwing up, crying and screaming while watching it. A movie considered beyond disturbing, that made people question cherished, long held beliefs. News stations and websites all over the world reported that the film consisted of genuine recorded video footage that documented the last days of three people, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, who had disappeared in 1994 and were never seen again. These young filmmakers went missing while shooting scenes in the woods for a documentary about a Burkittsville legend known as the Blair Witch. People that looked up the movie online found the Blair Witch website, which documented the history of the legend and the investigation into the missing people as well as appealing for information. According to the website a duffel bag belonging to the filmmakers, which contained film cans, DAT tapes, video-cassettes, a Hi-8 video camera, Heather’s journal and a CP-16 film camera, was discovered buried under the foundation of a 100-year-old cabin by the University of Maryland’s Anthropology Department.
Of course we can only be talking about The Blair Witch Project.
‘The first of its kind’ is a rather trite and overused expression, however in this case it is appropriate. The Blair Witch Project was completely unique, a low budget independent film that, due to clever marketing and the complete commitment of everyone involved, went on to become a global phenomenon which grossed almost $250 million worldwide.
In July 2016, Lionsgate confirmed that they were working on Blair Witch, the third instalment of the Blair Witch franchise. Working on Blair Witch we have longtime writing and directing team Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, responsible for action thriller The Guest and, (in my opinion) thoroughly decent slasher flick, You’re Next. With Blair Witch set for release in September, and the original audience being older and much more suspicious than when they saw the first movie, I think it is well worth taking a look at the Blair Witch concept.
The Blair Witch Project was the brainchild of American filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, who as well as creating the concept also wrote, directed and edited the finished product. After being inspired by documentaries about supernatural phenomena the pair wrote a 35 page outline for an idea that would be a combination of both movie and documentary style film making. There was no script, in order for the actors to sound natural Myrick and Sánchez decided that the dialogue would be mostly improvised. Three actors were cast on the basis of their improvisational skills. The directors filmed the interview segments with a mix of actors and genuine townspeople. The scenes in the woods were shot by the three principal actors, with the directors leaving milk crates for the actors to find that contained clues to the next location and improvisation instructions. The actors were also deprived of food. At night the directors would make noises in the woods, including playing the sound of children laughing on a boombox, in order to harass the actors.
The resulting footage was cut down into the 90 minute movie The Blair Witch Project and a mockumentary entitled The Curse Of The Blair Witch, which was shown on the SyFy Channel before the films release. Myrick and Sánchez also created the Blair Witch website, distributed missing persons flyers featuring the principal actors at festivals where the movie was shown and embarked on a 6 month internet campaign that promoted the film as factual. Posts were left on various online forums drawing attention to the movie website, which continued to add new information right up until opening weekend. The result was that most people who saw the movie believed that it was real, news media reported it as real, even IMDb listed the three main actors (who have the same names as their characters) as ‘missing, presumed dead’ for a year after the films release.
The attention to detail paid off, The Blair Witch project remains one of the most successful independent film titles ever made and one of the first ever to be marketed almost entirely on the internet.
Now here is where I get slightly controversial. You see, I never really liked The Blair Witch Project.
Now before you judge me too harshly for that consider that there are legitimate reasons. The Blair Witch Project hysteria was the result of a carefully orchestrated internet and cable television campaign that lasted several months, building the idea in minds that the events depicted in the movie were real, preparing them before they ever got near a cinema to actually watch the film. In 1997 in the UK, where I am, less than 10% of households had internet access and less than 20% had satellite or cable TV. We got the rumours of a terrifying movie and the moral panic on the news but most of us just didn’t have the means to access the mockumentary or the website. I myself had no clue that these things even existed when I went to the cinema. Unfortunately without the groundwork in place there only leaves the movie which, let’s face it, is 10 minutes of goofing around and interviews and then 80 minutes of arguing with each other and screaming at twigs.
I went to the movies expecting to be scared out of my mind or at the very least moderately freaked out. What I felt throughout the majority of The Blair Witch Project? Was bored.
Recently I gave The Blair Witch Project another chance. I did enjoy it more and although I still wasn’t actually frightened by it, I found it interesting to examine as a standalone idea. The best scary/horror movies, especially when low budget, utilise the surrounding environment to create a tense atmosphere. Forests in particular are great for this, awakening a kind of deep, primordial fear within us that comes from the knowledge that bad things can easily happen in the woods, even without the aid of supernatural elements. The Blair Witch Project makes use of this, but sparingly so as not to damage suspension of disbelief. The rock piles, the bundled twig figurines, the sounds of movement at night, all exist to make the woods seem threatening.
The performances of Donahue, Williams, and Leonard are wonderfully relatable, bringing just the right mix of paranoia, fear and despair. It’s relatively easy to place yourself in their shoes, lost, cold, hungry and disoriented all while increasingly feeling like something is out to get you. The movie is ambiguous enough that you could watch it as if there were no supernatural aspects involved at all. It could be just three people lost in the woods, becoming increasingly agitated, making bad choices as a result of stress, succumbing to mass hysteria and suffering the slow death from exposure. It’s also just as possible that Josh, the first to go missing from the group, suffered a psychotic episode from the stress of the situation and killed the other two. Josh disappears one night, possibly having left the tent to relieve himself and been may have been unable to find his way back. He is then heard screaming on subsequent nights, as anyone would if starving, half crazed and alone in the woods. People have snapped at far less.
This does however bring up an issue with the plot. Heather at one point says that hiking is one of her favourite things to do, and implies that she is an experienced hiker. Yet she is surprised to hear noises in the woods during the night. Anyone who has ever been camping in the woods will tell you, if you go out there expecting complete silence you’re probably going to have a bad time. Also it seems that no-one in the group took any kind of basic safety precautions. Nobody brought any extra food, warm clothing or a way of contacting the outside word if there was a problem. Worse still is Heather’s exclamation that “Nobody knows we’re out here”. Are they honestly trying to say that an experienced hiker would head out into the woods without telling anyone where they were going or how long they’d be out there? What if there’d been a non-paranormal related problem such as an accident or a medical issue? The spirit of a vengeful woman was unnecessary in bringing about the fate of these characters, natural selection would have taken care of things just fine.
In a way the greatest strength of The Blair Witch Project, creating a viral online marketing campaign before going viral was even a thing, was also its greatest weakness. The Blair Witch is a multimedia concept, and each element does not hold up enough without the support of the others. The infrastructure required for this to work outside of the North American audience simply did not exist yet, it was too ahead of its time. Yet on the other hand it seems as if the Blair Witch could not have worked at any other moment in time. People accepted that it was real simply because they had no reason to disbelieve what the computer and the TV told them. Nowadays we are a lot less willing to take what we see on the internet at face value. In a way The Blair Witch Project showed Hollywood what the internet was truly capable of as a way to reach an audience. The movie also helped to revitalise the flagging horror genre, popularising the ‘found footage’ sub genre that gave us movies such as Cloverfield, Quarantine and Paranormal Activity. For that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez deserve credit, and their place in movie history.
However what most people seem, or choose, to forget is that a sequel to The Blair Witch Project does already exist. Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, co-written and directed by Joe Berlinger, was quickly filmed and released in 2000 in order to fully capitalise on the success of the first film. The story of Book Of Shadows centres around a group of people that take a Blair Witch themed tour through the woods in which the original filmmakers disappeared. After camping in the woods the group wakes the following morning with no memory of what occurred the previous night. As they examine the film footage and attempt to discover what happened that night. each member of the group succumbs to hysteria, paranoia and hallucinations, eventually turning on one another. The production suffered some difficulties and only barely involved the creators of the first movie (who have since completely dissociated themselves) The production company re-edited the movie against the wishes of the director, adding scenes that were shot at the last minute in order to add more violence and commercial horror elements. The interference shows, and consequently the film is a bit of a mess. What was clearly supposed to be a subtle psychological take on the hysteria surrounding the Blair Witch phenomenon ends up, somewhat ironically, butchered to the point of almost being unwatchable and though commercially the film was considered a success Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was panned by critics and has been historically banished to the black hole of bad sequels.
However, in my personal opinion Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is worth a look. It is not a good movie, in fact it is a terrible movie, however that does not mean it is not entertaining. The acting is hammy and melodramatic, plot threads go nowhere and the editing choices are downright bizarre. Book Of Shadows also commits the almost unforgivable sequel crime of not utilising or expanding the franchise lore. And yet, with all that said, I actually quite enjoyed this film, if only because I find the idea of an incompetent cash in movie about an incompetent tour guide cashing in by taking a group of incompetent people who each hope to cash in on the Blair Witch legend to be gloriously meta as a concept, albeit an unintentional one.
Blair Witch will exist as a direct sequel to the first movie. The trailer appears to suggest more of the traditional horror elements whilst still utilising the ‘found footage’ aesthetic, much like the Paranormal Activity movies. With that it seems as if the Blair Witch concept has come full circle, now influenced by one of the very franchises it helped create. The time has come to go back into the woods, hopefully with all the appropriate safety measures in place this time. Either the truth awaits or a horrible death. But the main things I shall expect are more arguing, and a lot more screaming at twigs.