The Blair Witch Project never used to frighten me.
There was a brief moment, however, when I believed it to be real. It was the spring of 1999, and I was in the thick of my high school experience. The internet was in the process of slowly changing from "that thing that takes a while to work on the family computer" to "the place I check the news on a daily basis", and through a couple of the websites I followed I read about an upcoming movie that supposedly contained real footage of three filmmakers who had been missing since 1994. Doing some more digging, I found that the film they had been working on was to be a documentary about a legend of their local witch, the Blair Witch of Maryland. I was spooked, and the eerie mystery surrounding the film set my mind racing. Later that summer, the Sci-Fi Channel (which I watched religiously in those days) aired a documentary special of its own, Curse of the Blair Witch. I saw it at my cousins house with some relatives and my brother, and it was during this viewing that my burgeoning cynicism toward the media caused me to have an epiphany: this was all a ruse, and the movie was just a giant prank of a horror film. After all, what kind of corporation (even an independent studio like Artisan Entertainment) would dare attempt to sell viewings of real, borderline snuff footage for profit? There were no missing filmmakers, and there wasn't even a Blair Witch. I didn't feel betrayed, however; on the contrary, I found the idea incredibly clever, and marveled at how well the documentary special was faked. One of my cousins took the bait hook, line and sinker, terrified that the Blair Witch was real. I, on the other hand, was thrilled to be in on the joke.
Later that summer when I finally saw The Blair Witch Project itself, I enjoyed the film, yet found it too tame to get under my skin, too vague to be affecting, too...well, fake. I had seen the man behind the curtain too early, and it killed the momentum of scary hype surrounding the movie's release. Nevertheless I respected the film quite a bit, both as a nascent horror nerd and an aspiring filmmaker. Just like hundreds of other film geeks who saw the movie, my friends and I shot our own version/parody of the film, which we all thought was pretty clever at the time (though we were sorely lacking in technical craft and understanding of how the real movie had been lit: our version was only about 20% visible). After that, the film faded into the back of my consciousness, a slight footnote in my film loving history. The Blair Witch Project was an outlier, a shrewd prank, unique to real and wannabe filmmakers used to the experience of shooting a ton of digital video but uncommon to everyone else.
Then something momentous happened; the entire world changed. Not suddenly, for such cultural changes always happen subtly, but little by little the Internet took over our lives, and with it came an abundance of screens and footage. Self-shot footage, no longer the purview of people on vacation and short family home movies, became a norm, resulting in everything from daily updates on people's lives to thousands of amateur films just like The Blair Witch Project. The movie's influence was especially felt within narratives told through new media, with Alternate Reality Games becoming popularized, both as standalone experiences and as larger viral marketing campaigns for major motion pictures and television shows. Some of these narratives even fooled people into believing its veracity, just as Curse of the Blair Witch had. The ubiquitousness of people using camera devices began to seep onto movie screens, hitting the culture in a big way with 2008's Cloverfield. That movie was made almost a decade after The Blair Witch Project, and yet much of its narrative structure and visual style is undeniably influenced by it.
The Blair Witch Project wasn't technically the first found footage film, as there had been a handful of examples prior, most notably Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust from 1980. However, that film still contained a framing device involving a character examining and commenting on the footage they, and we, were seeing. The Blair Witch Project, on the other hand, contained merely a small text legend at the beginning, and the rest was the "unedited" footage shot by the characters, presented without outside context.
In 2007, Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity copied this form that Blair Witch had invented, everything from using the actor's real names for the characters to a lack of a music score and having a simple credit crawl at the end. The film was such a success that it managed to break the stranglehold the Saw franchise had on the Halloween movie season, and its sequels continued to dominate multiplexes in October for years afterward. Paranormal Activity popularized the form, and Cloverfield expanded it to a wider audience. Cloverfield took the same cues from Blair Witch, keeping the "it's actually just a movie" elements relegated to the opening studio logo and the end credit crawl. It also ran its own influential and successful viral marketing campaign just as Blair Witch had, similarly using it to expand and inform the fictional story's mythology. Cloverfield cemented the form of the modern found footage film based on the success of The Blair Witch Project while expanding it to a new genre, and a genre unto itself was properly born. Numerous other films followed suit. From there, found footage went through its avant garde period, moving through other genres such as science fiction, comedy, and drama, and through experimental and conceptual twists within the horror genre (such as in the V/H/S films). Found footage became common enough that a film made in such a style nowadays is no longer a gimmick, but merely another aesthetic choice.
Now, in 2016, things are coming full circle, as a surprise Blair Witch sequel was announced during the San Diego International Comic-Con in July. Horror stalwarts Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (they of the fantastic You're Next and The Guest, as well as segments of the V/H/S films) are the filmmakers behind it, and the film will be firmly in the found footage genre that the original movie pioneered. That's in stark contrast to Blair Witch's other, much maligned sequel, Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows, which at least attempted to strike its own path and not repeat its predecessor's form. It was made in a different time, however, before found footage had become a legitimate genre in its own right. The time is perfect to honor the original film's legacy, which is why I sat down with it just the other night, for the first time since the turn of the century.
To my surprise, The Blair Witch Project frightened me.
This isn't due to the film's backstory, which remains incredibly slight. Part of the meta narrative that writer/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez constructed for the film, that it was all real, naturally loses its power after the initial viewing (or as in my case, before). Watching the faux documentary they made with Ben Rock, Curse of the Blair Witch, beforehand would certainly enrich and deepen the mythology behind the film's storyline and give its villain a bit more weight, but not to any huge degree. We end up knowing a great deal about the characters' relationships to each other, but other then that most of the backstory is doled out in tiny morsels, just barely enough to hang a mythology on. There's a good reason that the Blair Witch never became popular as a character in her own right, and that's simply because she isn't one. She's not even visibly in the film!
Of course, that's all by design, as Myrick and Sanchez constructed the movie to be a bare bones experience rather then a tightly scripted thematic narrative. Nothing is more powerful in horror then simplicity, and The Blair Witch Project couldn't be simpler. It's similar in intent to the best slashers ever made, insofar as those films were tightly constructed machines geared toward the next outrageous kill scene. Here, Myrick and Sanchez employ an almost completely opposite tactic of being less writer/directors and more puppet masters, setting up situations that allow the actors to react as completely and truthfully as possible, to present a film as close as possible to an authentic, immediate, real experience. Rather then setting up a perfect shot to sell an intricate kill gag, the directors sent their actors into the woods with a map and walkie talkies, having them actually live (and document) the experience of hiking to a predetermined campsite, set up camp, sleep...and then be awoken by strange noises in the distance that the directors and friends of theirs would make. As a result of this (again, then radical) style of filmmaking, there was no script per se, and the majority of the dialogue was improvised by the actors. The film was also shot by the actors, resulting in not only a naturalistic look, but, thanks to the directors' inclusion of a 16mm camera as well as a digital video camera, a variety of visual styles that keeps the movie from being dull.
All of this lends the film a feeling of authenticity that no film since (in the world of fiction, that is) has come close to matching. Subsequent found footage films, despite mimicking Blair Witch's style, started to construct gags, moments and shots that would be captured professionally by characters supposedly unused to filmmaking. This lent those films a lot of entertainment value, and are clever in their own right, but never allow for the immediacy and truth that Blair Witch does. Similarly, most other found footage films contain mostly improvised dialogue, but performed by actors (or even professional improvisers) more used to working with improvisation. Improvising in films was still very rare in 1999, and as such actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard are under no pressure to be funny or clever or scary, so they can only be real.
It's that reality that so affected me during my recent viewing of the film. I marveled at the eerie sounds surrounding the group at night, I became anxious and frustrated as the three got lost in the woods, I got creeped out when (the dead?) Josh's disembodied voice cried out for help, and I was teary-eyed along with Heather as she gave her final monologue to the camera. Removed from the hype machine in which it was originally released, and viewed with all the hindsight of a decade and change of subsequent found footage films, The Blair Witch Project is a remarkable and authentic experience.
The testament to the film's power lies in its final scene, which perfectly encapsulates the film's genius simplicity. For a movie that I believed for years to be "unmemorable", I found myself total recall-ing elements while watching that I had unknowingly burned onto my brain (shots used in numerous trailers and commercials for the film, "I kicked that fucker into the creek!", "all lights off", and so on). But one moment I never forgot is the ending, which anyone who's seen the film will instantly remember. Unlike other horror films (or even just films in general), there's hardly anything to it. It's a simple shot of Mike standing in the corner of a dilapidated basement facing the wall while Heather screams and films. She is then attacked offscreen by something unseen (indeed, unknowable), the camera hits the ground and cuts to black. On paper that may sound far too slight, dull even. Yet the entire structure of the film, its vague implications and set ups and its pervasive mood, all lead to this moment, and imbue it with a dreadful, frightening power. For months afterward, conspiracy theorists spoke about how the film was actually real (until the actual actors began appearing in public to debunk it). For years afterward, no one else attempted to make another major found footage film, giving the movie even more cultural significance. The legacy of The Blair Witch Project is that it not only left an entire genre of film in its wake, but made its reality our own, if only for a moment.