The Blair Witch Project is 20 years old this week so, naturally, the “found” footage contained within has aged considerably. Rather than putting distance between the film and a modern audience, however, it actually adds to the experience. Suddenly, the instantly-iconic warning that “their footage was found,” which spawned an entire sub-genre, carries an entirely different, spooky weight. Not only is this footage caught on the fly by wannabe filmmakers, but it’s completely different to anything else we’re likely to see in the cinema nowadays. Or even online.
It’s worth remembering just how intense the viral marketing campaign, the first of its kind, for the movie was. From the website, purporting to show real missing kids, to how the film was initially shown to those in the know (including Kevin Smith whose wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, memorably finished the movie in a panic about helping the subjects out), The Blair Witch Project benefited from an onslaught of brilliantly-conceived marketing.
Poor Heather Donahue suffered for real when the public turned against her for apparently being such a pain (she’s hated so much due to her gender; she acts exactly like any young filmmaker would). Watching the film back, the trio look so much younger, with Donahue sporting the kind of lame nineties-style hairband that’s come back into fashion since. They smoke constantly, which again is jarring for modern eyes, and get mad about Donahue filming everything (now a trope in found footage).
The group gets lost almost immediately and falls out even quicker, which heightens the tension without anything particularly scary even happening — consider how most of The Blair Witch Project takes place in daylight for more evidence of its power. Being lost in the woods is bad enough without being taunted by a supernatural entity. Indeed, there’s never actually anything out there; it’s their minds playing tricks on them just as ours do. The nighttime noises aren’t even otherworldly, but rustling in the darkness is enough to chill the blood.
The thing is only 80 minutes long, which is crazy considering just how much of a slow burn it actually is. The Blair Witch Project has been parodied beyond recognition, but its mythology is incredibly strong (when they’re interviewing townspeople and the mother says “It’s NOT true” ’cause her kid is so scared before mouthing “It’s true” to the camera) and so much of it is implied, which is why most of us have spent 20 years trying to decipher its meaning.
That early shot of the car receding into the background as they first enter the woods is so haunting Adam Wingard reused it for 2016’s Blair Witch, to similarly horrifying effect. Likewise, the grave intonation of “Nobody knows we’re out here” has been replicated in virtually every found footage movie that’s followed. In stark contrast to those films, however, once the central trio realize something is up, they make the rational decision to leave the forest sooner rather than later.
It’s human error that initially lumbers them lost, too, as it’s revealed Mike kicked their map into the creek, but a working knowledge of the movie makes moments such as this even more disturbing because the trio still believe they’re in control of their environment. Likewise, when Mike and Heather are discussing food cravings, it’s an important moment of levity but it’s also horrible for the audience who know they’re never getting out of there.
The lack of cellphones or any other modern conveniences is tackled in the 2016 sequel, which showcases how useless such devices are against the powers of the titular witch. Once things start to change for the worse, it’s evident this is her world and these kids are just unlucky enough to have stumbled into it. Only Mike, as the voice of reason/wuss, seems to understand the grave danger they’re in. They may find comfort in each other but it’s Josh’s voice that lures the other two to their deaths.
Heather’s cry of “It can’t be him” is also mimicked in Blair Witch, as another character rushes into the house (painfully reconstructed for the movie) to save someone who’s clearly already perished. The property is a truly terrifying find, dilapidated but lived-in enough that it’s obvious some really terrible things happened there. Something as simple as the addition of children’s tiny hand-prints all over the walls is so perfectly executed. It’s scary but can’t be easily explained away, much like the house itself.
The Blair Witch Project might take its time, drip-feeding its story until it all goes pear-shaped in the final, nerve-shredding act, but there are several massive, all-timer moments — more than any modern found footage movie could hope for, including its sort-of sister movie, Paranormal Activity. The little gift from the witch is a gruesome, horrifying moment, while the most famous shot is, in spite of parody, still an emotionally-charged, and expertly played, scene for Heather Donahue while that famous final glimpse of Mike, stood facing the wall, is iconic for a reason. It’s still horrific.
There have been several great found footage movies released in The Blair Witch Project‘s wake, notably Bobcat Goldthwaite’s similar, Bigfoot-themed Willow Creek, the bonkers Borderlands, and the soul-destroying Internet horror The Den, along with the aforementioned, and unfairly derided, 2016 sequel Blair Witch, but none have had the same impact. Maybe it was a moment in time, or a genius marketing campaign, but The Blair Witch Project is simply a very scary movie. Still, in 2019.
Weirdly, of its tiny cast, only Joshua Leonard has really had a career in the ensuing years, most recently seen in the brilliant Unsane and Larry Fessenden’s Frankenstein redux Depraved. The movie was clearly difficult to shoot, with plenty of behind the scenes stories accumulating over the years, but the dedication of all involved is clear in each perfectly-staged, expertly creepy moment. And co-writers and directors Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez have been incredibly generous over the years with filling in (some) of the blanks for eager fans.
I was 11 when The Blair Witch Project hit theaters. I can still remember the marketing campaign, those horrible posters with Heather’s crying face, and how much buzz there was around seeing the movie in the cinema. I fantasized about finally getting to watch it, in fact, but my babysitter at the time saw it and then expressly forbid me from doing so (she did, however, show me Deep Blue Sea so kudos to her). I’ve often argued that a movie being “over-hyped” has more to do with the prospective audience than the film itself, but in the case of The Blair Witch Project, nothing could’ve prepared us for the onslaught.
And it still works, just as well if not even better. As much as I love Blair Witch 2016, nothing compares to the no-budget, grainy quality of The Blair Witch Project. It’s the original and best found footage movie for a reason; because no film since has come close to capturing its eerie energy. Even in 2019, with the viral marketing campaign in the rear-view and the actors long since exposed as, er, actors, it still packs enough of a punch to convince us that this trio of unlucky kids really perished in the Burkittsville woods that year. And we can’t stop watching the footage that was found.