The Legacy of The Blair Witch Project

Today is the twenty-year anniversary of the wide release of The Blair Witch Project – one of the first found footage movies to break into the mainstream, a byword for the definition of the genre, and also one of my favourite movies of entirely all time ever and unto eternity.

A micro-budget indie horror directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick where barely anything actually happens on-screen, The Blair Witch Project really had no fucking right to be as good or as popular as it was. Innovative marketing, a bold use of a new-ish genre, and some great performances turned it into the cult classic that it deservedly is today.

Found footage movies existed before The Blair Witch Project, of course – most notably Cannibal Holocaust, but also British classic Ghostwatch, another one of my great found footage passions – but it was with Blair Witch that the genre really found a foothold in the cinematic mainstream. A lot of this can be put down to the marketing campaign, which has been much-imitated and almost never matched; a website publicised before the film’s release detailed the police reports and evidence collections from the events within the film, sparking and outright encouraging debate on whether or not the story and the characters were actually real.

In an era when viewers are well-acquainted with guerilla marketing techniques, it’s easy to look back on this website – which is still up and still functional, by the way – and write it off as obvious, but an impressive amount of effort went into building the story for this film to take place within, to the point where a lot of people assumed they were watching a documentary feature – inlcuding IMdB, who listed the actors as “presumed dead” for a full year after the film became available. Movies like Cloverfield and even The Dark Knight turned these tactics into something we’ve come to recognize, but the truly unsettling nature of what The Blair Witch Project used them for- to imply actual, on-screen death – has never been matched. The naturalistic performances, anonymous nature of the stars, and messy shaky-cam made it all too easy to believe that we were actually watching the final hours of this unlucky trio of plucky would-be-moviemakers.

Marketing aside, the biggest impact this movie had, without a doubt, was turning the found footage genre into a cottage industry all of its own. The genre became a go-to for those working with tiny budgets and big ideas, and The Blair Witch Project became that little movie that could, the outline for what other creators in the genre could aspire to. Though Sanchez and Myrick didn’t go on to have the most distinguished careers either individually or as collaborators, their iconic debut set the scene for one of the most enduring horror trends cinema has ever seen. Their engagement with contemporary technology and media grounded found footage in an ever-involving ability to move with the times – we’re still seeing new takes on the genre today, from iconic possession flick Paranormal Activity to to the inventive internet originals like Petscop to last year’s high-concept Searching, found footage is still a major presence in the world of horror. And it all started here.

More than anything, though, The Blair Witch Project is just a fucking brilliant horror movie. I still remember the first time I saw it, curled up on the front couch in my living room while I ate Maltesers until I got so scared I couldn’t think about anything but this film, this film, this fucking film. I do not exaggerate when I say that every horror movie I saw after this one was judged on a “Did this scare me more than the original Blair Witch Project?”, the answer to which(/witch) was rarely “yes”. I know a lot of people dismiss this movie as a gimmick, and that’s certainly a part of it’s appeal, but it’s far more than that; for me, it’s an unparalleled exploration of how to make horror that lasts.

I watched this film for the first time ten years ago, and I could watch it again today, and I would still find it just as unsettling and disturbing and distressing as the first time I saw it. It’s a masterpiece in how to underplay horror in a way that makes it enduring; what we apply to the film is so much more powerful than anything it could have showed on-screen. The mark of any true masterpiece, for my money, is how it endures. And The Blair Witch Project, two decades later, is still the vital piece of cinematic history that it’s always been.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via The AV Club)

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