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REVIEW: The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch ProjectDirected by: Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick
Produced by: Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale
Written by: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
Edited by: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
Cinematography by: Neal Fredericks
Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard
Year: 1999


Found footage -style movies are a dime a dozen these days. Though mostly used in the horror genre (notably the Paranormal Activity films), the technique has also found its way into giant monster/kaiju films (Cloverfield), superhero films (Chronicle), and even loathsome teen “comedies” (Project X). The Blair Witch Project certainly wasn’t the first film to use the format (the controversial Italian film Cannibal Holocaust from 1980 is largely credited as the earliest), but it was, without question, the film that resulted in the technique’s popularization – with studios arguably bringing it to the point of exhaustion by now – Does anyone remember Apollo 18?

The Blair Witch Project - Heather Donahue

What The Blair Witch Project can lay claim to, however, is its pioneering integration of the internet and unprecedented viral marketing campaign. The film didn’t only have a website that informed audiences of what the film had to offer – it had a website that connected audiences to the world that the film took place in, gave them something to entertain them and hold their attention until the film’s release. The site and the media hype resulting from this campaign informed audiences about the legend of the Blair Witch. It was such a foreign concept and so effective that rumors that the film’s footage actually consisted of video captured by real documentarians who had gone missing persisted even after the film’s release. (Apparently the writers’ credits still didn’t clue some people in.  Either that, or it had a reverse moon landing conspiracy effect on, shall we say, more skeptical people.)

For all its media hype, however, the film, like most found footage features, is incredibly simple. The footage we see is said to have been filmed in October of 1994 by three film students. Heather is a 20-something documentarian who pairs up with her buddy and cameraman Josh and his buddy Mike as they go out into the woods to document their findings as they investigate the legend of the Blair Witch, interviewing locals about their knowledge of the subject and head into the woods to visit the supposed sites where people from the town of Burkittsville, Maryland (formerly named Blair) came into contact with the witch (or someone possessed by her) and never returned. The group becomes lost, however, when Heather’s tracking skills inexplicably fail them, and it’s not long before the group begins to disintegrate. When it seems like they’re being stalked and threatened, however, so, too, does their sanity, as they come across more and more evidence that there’s definitely something behind the legend of the Blair Witch.

The Blair Witch Project - Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams

Using two handheld cameras, one in black and white, the film ably manages to juggle screentime for each of the characters without one of them getting lost behind the camera as a disembodied voice. Though the Golden Razzies saw fit to nominate the film for two “awards,” both Worst Picture and Worst Actress (the latter of which it was “awarded”), the film is actually quite excellent and the actors, particularly Heather Donahue, do an excellent job capturing the personalities of their respective grunge-era amateur filmmakers — which is all the more admirable when you consider that the dialogue was improvised to maintain the tone of the film, and the cast was seriously physically and psychologically challenged by the film crew over the 8 day shoot so as to maintain authenticity to reality. This isn’t a film that requires them to deliver flowery prose – these are characters who are capturing small but enthusiastic discoveries in their research and we also are privy to their often petty squabbles as Heather insists upon capturing what she can and making the most of the situation.

What would feel like lazy scripting in any other film feels far more natural and impromptu with the found footage format. What matters most is the progression of tension, story structure, and believable acting, and The Blair Witch Project and its cast do this incredibly well. The characters grow from being relatively chill about the project to increasingly paranoid and then, finally, to believably terrified when confronted with some truly unnerving things, and yet the film also doesn’t rely on cheap scares, unrealistic setups, and grandiose gestures, either, which has become somewhat of a cliché in even some of the more respectable franchises like Paranormal Activity (whose prestige level taken a steep dive). The buildup to the climax is riveting, and then, after delivering the final punch, The Blair Witch Project is wise enough to check out on a high note.

The Blair Witch Project - Evidence

The Blair Witch Project is a pioneering and bold film whose risks managed to pay off in terms of historical impact and innovative, exciting filmmaking and marketing (though the latter has not been taken into account in regards to the film’s overall quality rating). Even 14 years later, it remains the one to beat when it comes to subtle, psychological horror through making the best use of the found footage filmmaking format, and the fact that other filmmakers are to this day continuing to try to imitate its success as a quality horror film and still come up relatively short in the scares and characterization shows how justified the film’s own legacy has become.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5


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