The Terrifying Genius of “The Blair Witch Project”
When we talk about horror classics, The Blair Witch Project (1999) is not often brought up. It’s not as flashy as say Halloween or Friday the 13th, nor does it have an endless stream of sequels, and reboots, and reboots of sequels, and sequels to reboots. I’ve always been a fan of this movie so, having not seen it in a few years, I recently went back and rewatched it.
This viewing cemented The Blair Witch Project as being one of my all time favorite horror movies. Since I haven’t heard much dialogue about it as of late, I wanted to break down the genius I see in this film, and why it is so damn effective.
Made for about $60,000 by a group of unknown filmmakers, improvised by unknown actors, and marketed as being a true story, The Blair Witch Project was a sensation when it was released in 1999. Being only one year old at the time, I obviously have no recollection of this myself. Reading about it after the fact, this has to be one of the greatest marketing ploys in movie history, and one of the most successful independent films of all time.
The realism of The Blair Witch Project is part of the genius of the film. It lives and dies by convincing you that everything that is happening is real. This is no easy feat, and has to be one of the biggest challenges a filmmaker can take on. If the audience watched The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and immediately called its bluff, it would have disappeared as swiftly as its characters.
Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez had to make this film feel real in two different regards. First, all of the footage has to feel plausible. Heather, Mike, and Josh have to come across as real people making actual, in the moment decisions. Their decisions also have to be consistent with who they are as people, and can never feel forced or unwarranted.
While this may seem typical of any movie — believable characters making consistent decisions — there is a level of disbelief an audience will suspend for a fictional, narrative film. With a movie that you are trying to convince the world is all real footage, the audience will pull apart every single little thing they see. There is no level of disbelief in this case; the filmmakers are going on the offense to make you believe everything.
Part of the reason everything feels real is because Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams were actually left in the woods with the cameras to improvise the movie. The filmmakers did direct where they went, wrote them lines, and orchestrated events around them, but the actors were left to their own devices to bring a level of spontaneity to the movie. This is one of the most key aspects in making everything feel organic and natural.
The other big consideration is that there has to be a really good and logical reason every single time the camera is turned on to document what is happening. It needs to make sense why the characters would be filming at this exact instance. The biggest issue with many subsequent found-footage movies is that it never makes sense contextually why the characters would be recording what’s happening.
With The Blair Witch Project, they go to great lengths to not only explain it, but to then not show the parts where it wouldn’t make sense for the characters to be filming. Some of the scariest parts of the film are when there are big lapses in footage, and we have no idea what has been going on for the past few hours. Even when the cameras are rolling, it becomes a point of tension between the characters that Heather continues to record. These considerations help make you further believe the footage that you are seeing.
Not only does everything we see and hear have to feel organic, but another story needs to be told through the editing. The cameras are abandoned by the end of the movie, so whoever edited these clips together to create The Blair Witch Project is someone else entirely who found the cameras, discovered the footage, and put it all together.
This is really tricky to do, because you need to create a flow for the movie without it feeling constructed as a movie. You have certain beats that function as the catalyst or the dark soul of the night, but their placement in the story needs to feel organic. To edit a movie together without it feeling like it is an edited-together movie while it is supposed to be very clearly edited is a line I would not want to walk, and it is done about as perfectly as one could possibly do it.
However, it doesn’t matter how great the lengths are that the filmmakers go to to convince you that what you’re seeing is real if what you’re seeing ultimately isn’t interesting or compelling — or in this movie’s case, scary. Luckily, Myrick and Sánchez pull this off just as brilliantly.
While the movie has a supernatural undercurrent, it all comes from the place of suggestion. You don’t actually see anything happen. You hear the locals in the beginning talk about a legend, and you see a couple of weird things throughout, but nothing actually happens. So why is this movie so terrifying?
Since the entire premise of the movie is predicated on it being real, the more mundane aspects of the film become scarier. A traditionally shot movie about a group of kids getting lost in the woods may not have the same effect as watching recovered footage of real kids getting lost. When you buy into the reality of The Blair Witch Project from the very first frame, you become invested in every single detail, and the terror of each detail becomes magnified.
The Blair Witch Project just goes to show that a group of independent filmmakers can see unprecedented success if they do everything just right. Not only is there a fascinating story surrounding the film, but it still holds up even all of these years later. It doesn’t immediately fall apart once you realize that the film was actually staged. Its greatest tool is its simplicity, but it’s the level of complexion behind pulling off that simplicity that makes it work.
To me, The Blair Witch Project is one of the most unique but completely satisfying horror movies ever made.