31 Fright Nights: Halloween 2017, Night #7 – The Blair Witch Project (1999)

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Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

Writer(s): Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

Studio/Distributor: Artisan Entertainment

Budget: $60,000

Box Office: $248.6m

Release Date: 14 July, 1999

IMDb Rating: 6.4/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

UK Blu Ray release? Yes

Cast

Heather Donahue – Heather

Joshua Leonard – Josh

Michael C. Williams – Mike

Trailer

Plot According to IMDb

Three film students vanish after travelling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind.

Inertia’s Insight

We’ve talked about The Exorcist, and how its documentary style cinéma vérité shocked audiences, inciting reactions that the Warner Bros. marketing department would utilise for years to come. But none could have imagined the success or impact of a micro budget mockumentary horror film from completely unknown filmmakers and actors that successfully utilised the internet as the definitive marketing tool.

The Godfather of the found footage sub-genre, The Blair Witch Project is as much a success for its marketing than it is its filmmaking style; indeed, it almost seems it wouldn’t be the same film without the prior knowledge attached to it. Three college filmmaker friends Heather, Michael and Josh hike into the woods outside of Burkitsville, Maryland in 1994 to make a documentary about the infamous local legend, the Blair Witch. They were never seen again. One year later, their camera and sound equipment were found. The film is a presentation of that footage.

Back in 1999, the internet  and its web pages were a jumble of Word Art titles, bitty images and Viagra adverts, and as unreliable as its dial-up tone. There existed no real understanding of the internet; the lack of web accessibility guidelines ensured that vital information was lost amidst exclamation points and vanity banners – just take a look at Google:

1999

So, unless you lived in Maryland or had more knowledge of the American landscape than a trucker, you were apt to believe that Burkitsville existed. A quick Google! search would have led you to one of the most ingenious pieces of marketing this side of the millennium (yes, even better than those Viagra emails). You would have found a web page confirming that three teenagers had gone missing and that only their footage had been recovered. In an age where Donald Trump’s ‘Fake News’ hysteria didn’t exist, this was the icing on top of one very genius cake.

Such clever – and cheap – marketing for a micro-budget film inevitably drummed up an enormous amount of anticipation, leaving audiences salivating at the prospect of watching a film that left you questioning whether you’d watched an ingenious horror film or a twisted snuff film. This anticipation can only be paid off by a damn good film, and fortunately for us, a damned good film it is.

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The grainy quality, shoddy camera work and ‘real’ interviews at the beginning of the film, coupled with the off-topic filming in their motel room, pitches the film perfectly as a documentary. The mundanity of the opening few minutes establish the legend of the Blair Witch and the local belief that “these woods are haunted”. These kinds of warnings are usually reserved at the start of poor slasher films, where the dire warning from the hillbilly about the cursed woods is met with little faith. Here, the warnings are delivered to camera and feel real.

Myrick and Sanchez do well to build the tension. It’s easy enough to throw them in the woods and let the shit hit the fan, but they craft it so that their descent into madness is slow and questionable, the first-person perspective putting us in the front seat and taking us with them. The first night starts the hysteria off with gentle suggestion: the snapping of twigs and the distant sounds. In the pitch black, discerning what is causing the sounds inevitably leads them – and us – to think of the legend they have come to investigate. The found footage aspect is voyeuristic but it has the opposite effect: we don’t want to watch; we don’t want it to get dark again.

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And so we see their sanity slowly starting to fade as they struggle to make their way back to the car. The three leads nail their paranoid performances. You genuinely believe their contempt for each other and their fear of spending another night in the woods. And when that night comes…

It’s the power of suggestion during that first night of madness that really raises the goosebumps. The sounds are familiar yet they’re louder, they’re getting closer. But it’s not until they flee the safety of their tent, tear-arsing into the darkness screaming “What the fuck is that!” that you find yourself hiding behind a pillow whilst simultaneously trying to see just what the fuck ‘it’ is. Just as soon as you’ve tried to decipher the shadow in the corner of a frame, we’re on to the next scene.

From Josh’s disappearance, the tension ratchets up, and save for one snot-filled scene that is emotional yet laughable, the ending happens. That ending. Mentioned in passing at the start of the film as part of the Blair Witch’s M.O., the most frightening part of this film is a man standing in the corner. It cements their fate in a brutal and somewhat open way, but not seeing their demise makes the ending all the more difficult to watch.

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The marketing is most definitely the sum of its parts. The film’s legacy couldn’t exist without it. Sadly, in a desperate attempt to cash in on the overwhelming success, the studio rushed through a sequel that lost all the grit and ethos of this film, making a sequel that by and large shared little similarity apart from name. thankfully, the legacy of The Blair Witch Project lives on. Though found footage has advanced and reached new milestones, this film still rules supreme, the micro budget filmmakers handy guide on how to make a horror.

Inertia’s Ideal Score ( out of 5)

★★★★★

Trivia

  • The film was in the Guinness Book of World Records for ‘Top Budget : Box Office Ratio’. The film cost $60,000 to make and made back $248m, a ratio of $1 to $10,931 made
  • Numerous people were so convinced of the Blair Witch’s existence that they flock to Maryland in hopes of discovering the legend
  • It took only 8 days to shoot the film

Quotes

HEATHER: I’m afraid to close my eyes, I’m afraid to open them.


Tomorrow: Night #8 – The Orphanage (2007)

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