“Three film students vanish after traveling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind.” — IMDb
It might surprise some of you to hear that this was my FIRST TIME seeing The Blair Witch Project. I know, I know. I used to have a problem with movies (or TV shows, or books, or anything else) being TOO POPULAR. When something would come out and everyone was freaking out and raving over it, I would tend to roll my eyes and go the other way. I was only 12 when The Blair Witch Project showed up in theaters, but I remember everyone going nuts for it and that meant I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. I have since (mostly) gotten over that problem — honestly, it stopped me from getting into a lot of cool things — but for some reason I just never got around to seeing this movie.
When this movie first came out in 1999, it blew all expectations out of the water. Shot in 8 days on a $60,000 budget, it went on to gross $248 million in theaters, placing it as the 5th highest earning independent film ever made. The director, Eduardo Sánchez, had set up a website prior to the movie’s release to convince interested watchers that it was, in fact, genuine found footage. At its Sundance release, flyers were passed out encouraging anyone with information about the missing three to come forward. The star of the movie, Heather Donahue — whose eyes are burned forever in everyone’s minds from that iconic scene — still has people telling her that they thought she was dead. Her mother received sympathy cards after the movie was released. That alone — the whole concept of a hugely viral website combined with a very widely believed myth — is fascinating. It’s part of the reason I love found footage style movies so much — the ability to skirt that line between fact and fiction.
The basic story is simple: three 20-something film students head into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland, to make a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch, the ghost of Elly Kedward who was supposedly banished from Blair Township (latter-day Burkittsville) for witchcraft in 1875. Things quickly start to go very wrong and we watch them run for their lives through the woods until the tragic ending.
It has some pretty natural interactions and dialogue, most likely credited to the fact that much of it was ad-libbed throughout the filming process. The three actors didn’t know each other before filming but got to spend some pretty intimate days together out in the actual woods of Maryland. Honestly, the bickering between the three of them gets a little old at times, and particularly the two guys’ quickness to berate and insult the director, Heather, for what they perceive as her shortcomings (losing the map, not knowing exactly where in the woods they are, etc).
Overall, its strength comes from, as I mentioned, its ability to make you, at times, unsure if what you’re watching is real or fake. It really makes me wish I HAD seen it in theaters, because I, of course, now know that is was not a real documentary… but a huge number of people believed it when it was released, and it would have added a whole ton of suspense and tension to the watching experience if I truly hadn’t been sure.
But it still has that believable quality from the found footage style, and the fact that we never actually see the thing that we most fear. We have the isolation of being not only deep in the woods but lost AND without a means of outside communication. The breaking down of morale in the group. The mounting evidence that SOMEONE — or someTHING — is following closely behind as they move through the forest. The scene where Heather makes her emotional confession into the camera is brilliant in the sense that it drives home this feeling of desperation, of helplessness. You are on edge for much of the movie because you’re simply looking into the darkness to see what’s out there.
It wasn’t the most interesting movie I’d ever seen, and again, not as impressive as I imagine it might have been closer to its release, but credit where credit is due… it’s a masterfully done movie both in marketing and execution.