The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Starring: Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, Mike Williams

“I just want to apologize to Mike’s mom, Josh’s mom, and my mom. And I’m sorry to everyone. I was very naive. I am so so sorry for everything that has happened. Because in spite of what Mike says now, it is my fault. Because it was my project.” (Heather, The Blair Witch Project)

There have been so many shaky-cam movies since the release of The Blair Witch Project that it can be hard to go back to the film that kicked off the frenzy and appreciate it in a more recent context. It no longer feels fresh, it no longer feels original, but what it does still offer is a well-structured, creepy film… as long as you’ve never seen it before.

The story goes that three student filmmakers – Heather, Josh and Mike – decide to make a documentary on Ellie Kedward, a woman who lived near Blair, Maryland in the 1700s and was dubbed the Blair Witch by those who shunned and exiled her from her village. Kedward was said to have led children away from the village and killed them as punishment for her banishment. Fast-forward to the 1940s and a madman called Rustin Parr takes seven children into the woods and kills them, claiming the Blair Witch told him to.

Burkittsville, Maryland is actually a real place, though it wasn't originally called Blair, Maryland as this film claims

And so, in 1994, our trio of filmmakers set out to investigate and try to find out more about the legend. Or at least, they did. You see, The Blair Witch Project opens with a message that Heather, Josh and Mike went missing while filming this documentary, and the footage that makes up the movie is what was found in the woods by a search party looking for them. Of course, in reality it’s all bollocks and Heather, Mike and Josh were just actors who are alive and well and still struggling to find film roles, but at the time of its release The Blair Witch Project’s rather convincing website and a “real” documentary about the Blair Witch legend on the Sci-Fi Channel had plenty of filmgoers certain that what they were watching was real footage of three missing children. 

And so we see Heather interviewing local townsfolk about the Ellie Kedward tale, and whether they thought it was real. We see her standing at various locations in Maryland, reading from a book about Maryland’s history. We see lots of “raw” footage where the trio buy supplies from a supermarket and goof around in a hotel room. And then we see them parking their car, leaving it behind and heading into the woods.

"For Christ's sake Tony, you need to lay off the diet. You're stick-thin"

The Blair Witch Project plays on our fear of the unknown, doing this not only by keeping what’s going to happen from us, but also the three actors. When it was being shot, the three were only given very vague instructions as to what their characters should do that day – go missing, drop the map, etc – and anything else they experienced was completely unexpected.

So when they wake up one morning to find odd piles of sticks next to their stuff, they had no idea that was going to happen (the film crew did it as they slept). When they hear the noises of children laughing outside their tent at night (tape recordings being played by the crew), the terror you see and hear from them is genuine. This is what sets The Blair Witch Project apart from the countless imitators that followed it, in which the “fear” was carefully scripted, rehearsed and acted out to try and look authentic.

This shot, one of the most famous in '90s horror, was actually accidental. Heather thought her whole face was in the frame

This play on the fear of the unknown is unfortunately the movie’s downfall too. While watching the film for the first time can be an extremely unnerving and at times terrifying experience (especially if you’ve got a good sound system that lets you hear the film’s weird noises all around you during certain scenes), once you’ve seen the ending and know what happens (or doesn’t happen) then watching the film a second time is a greatly muted experience. Fear of the unknown becomes expectedness of the known, and what you’re left with is 81 minutes of people running around with a camera.

If you’ve never seen The Blair Witch Project, see it. It took an awful lot of work to make something like this look so genuine, and if you don’t know much about it you will most likely be terrified. Yes, there’ll  the odd bigheaded knob who’ll boast “that wasn’t scary at all” (even if they don’t really mean it), but this film is something of a masterpiece when it comes to fear management and the vast majority of first-time viewers will be scared stupid. This is in no way a film intended for multiple viewings though, so if you remember seeing it when it first came out and fancy another viewing you may find it’s not so much a case of being scared in the woods as a walk in the park.

WHERE CAN I SEE IT?
The Blair Witch Project is currently available on DVD and, oddly, Blu-ray (even though the deliberately poor quality footage doesn’t benefit from an HD picture in any way). Both have the same great extras (including a really interesting Director’s Commentary and the entire fake documentary shown on the Sci-Fi Channel to promote the film), but the Blu-ray also has a few very interesting alternative endings. UK peeps can get the DVD for a few quid here and the Blu-ray here, while those in the US can get the DVD here and the Blu-ray here.

It’s also currently available on Netflix in the UK, so if you’re subscribed to that you can watch it as part of your subscription at no extra cost.

THE MENTALISTS SPEAK

“If Cloverfield were more like this, it would be an infinitely better film.”
– @fourthlupin

“All other films like it are only around because of this film, not sure if thats a good thing.”
– @GeorgeEMole

The Blair Witch Project captures the utter breakdown and despair of a group of young people incredibly well.”
– @LeemoDee

“Urgh, running through Cannon Hill Common’s woods this morning in the dark made me think of Blair Witch. That film freaked me out because my imagination is a nasty place, what isn’t seen is scarier than anything you put in front of me.”
– Anon

“The reason for terrible “real handheld camera” films? Blame The Blair Witch Project.”
– @Siddall89

“It doesn’t matter how big and strong you are, everyone has a fear of the woods at night. Blair Witch plays on that fear perfectly.”
– @Reeesy

“I think it was one of those rare movies without one of those always-happy Hollywood endings.”
– @djallen813

“I only saw it once in the cinema when it came out but I remember thinking that I would hate it (as I’m a horrible curmudgeon and it was too hyped). As it turned out, I really enjoyed it and thought the ending was creepy as fuck. Would need to see it again to re-evaluate though.”
– Ronan M

“I think as a first time view the film is very good. The story builds up nicely and the fact that you never see actually “see” anything I like as it leaves a lot to the imagination! Less effect the more times you watch it but so scary the first time you watch. Would love to watch it with someone who knows nothing about it and would just watch their facial expressions all the way through!”
– Katie T

“A bit over-rated, not that scary until the last 10 minutes or so.  Ripped off a film made a couple of years before it, and the last shot is nicked from/a homage to Man Bites Dog.  The marketing campaign for it was more interesting than the actual film.”
– Brian R

“I dont love it, but definitely don’t hate it! It being a horror film that has no violence or blood – just intense moments built up by story and the audience’s relationship with the characters – I think it does what it set out to do. Its low budget spurred every budding young film maker in the country to think “I can do that”, which is always a good thing. Look at students who can go out now with no money and make a short horror, put it into FrightFest and get a bit of exposure. Without films like The Blair Witch Project we wouldn’t have films like REC, Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity. I challenge anyone to watch the movie on their own and then take a walk in the woods!”
– John McP

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