Friday, 16 September 2016

The Blair Witch Project

Year of Release:  1999
Directors:  Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Screenplay:  Jacob Cruse and Eduardo Sanchez
Starring:  Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael Williams
Running Time:  81 minutes
Genre:  horror

It's hard to picture, seventeen years on, the phenomenal impact that The Blair Witch Project had when it was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in late 1999.  It managed to split audiences among those who were caught up in the film's ambiguous chills and genuinely frightened by it, and those who thought it was 81 minutes of tedium, and annoyingly shaky camera work, that could have been made by anyone with a bunch of pals and access to some woods and a video camera.  The idea, as we are informed in the opening titles, is that in October 1994 three film students (Heather (Donahue), Josh (Leonard) and Mike (Williams)) go missing in the forests around the small Maryland town of Burkittsville while filming a documentary about a gruesome local legend.  A year later their footage is found, and it is this footage that is allegedly presented to the viewers.

The film made use of a very innovative marketing campaign, selling the entirely fictional film as if it was a true story, with the help of television "documentaries" and being one of the first films to really utilise the power of internet marketing, at a time when the Web was just becoming widespread, and also of course word of mouth.  The film was promoted by issuing "MISSING" posters for each of the three characters (all of whom shared the same name as the actor playing them) even the venerable Internet Movie Database got in on the fun, listing the cast as "missing presumed deceased".  Of course, the cat was out of the bag before long.  This small film became the most successful independent film of all time, and popularised the "found footage" sub-genre of horror although  Blair Witch Project wasn't the first to use the technique (that honor probably goes to Cannibal Holocaust (1980)).  The film keeps it's horror ambiguous, an approach that beguiled some viewers and frustrated others.  The ending in particular is open to interpretation.  It's even debatable as to whether there is anything supernatural going on at all.

Looking at it now, on DVD, away from all the hype, the film has lost a lot of it's impact, particularly after the glut of found footage horrors that came in it's wake.  It's not without it's merit though.  A good horror film needs a basic fear to latch on to in the viewer, with Blair Witch Project it's being lost, alone and frightened with no way out.  I would venture to suggest that most of us have had experience of being lost at some point in our lives, to a greater or lesser extent, I'm sure very few of us have been stuck out in the woods and tormented by a powerful supernatural force, but you may have been stuck out late in an unfamiliar part of town, or stranded in a strange place and unsure how to get back.

There have been two sequels to date:  Book of Shadows:  Blair Witch 2 (2000) which was released exactly a year later, and is widely regarded as a disaster, and Blair Witch (2016).

 Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project

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