This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
Day nine really happened…or did it? Presenting, The Blair Witch Project.
‘An improvised feature film, shot in wooded location: it is going to be hell and most of you reading this probably shouldn’t come’. So said the casting call for Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s experimental, micro-budget horror The Blair Witch Project in 1997, marking an unconventional start to an unconventional production. Twenty years of endless, dire imitations have followed but this one still strikes a startling chord.
Conceived, written, directed and edited by Myrick and Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first film to employ a found footage aesthetic – Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust had done so as early as 1980 – but it was the one that brought the technique to mainstream cinema. Viral marketing and a (reportedly) widespread belief that the footage was actually real have often been credited with leading to its unprecedented success but there’s also much to be said about the film’s remarkable production values.
The premise is straightforward. Three student filmmakers – Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard using their own names – set off into Burkittsville, Maryland’s local wood to film a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch, who is said to haunt it. Some in the town believe, some don’t; some warn them to stay far away: ‘You damn fool kids’ll never learn’. Unswayed, the trio pack their bags and, as an opening title reveals, were never seen again.
Every shot in the film comes courtesy of the cast, who improvised their lines script-free but knew little of what Myrick and Sánchez had in mind for them within the wood. Over the course of an eight day shoot, the three actors remained on site, gradually having their food rations restricted, and filming everything. Many of Blair Witch’s most memorable scenes evolved from their real emotional reactions – fear, anger and, most frequently, annoyance – as they were subjected to pranks and encouraged to squabble.
In spite of how uncomfortable the actors became, physically and mentally, their strife paid off, giving rise to a brilliantly visceral, effects-light final feature. That the camerawork is poor, often out of focus and badly lit, is part and parcel for why this works. Whereas later found footage productions have often struggled to overcome a sense of constructed reality, this feels like the real deal. Yes, Heather, Mike and Josh speak way too much across the eighty minute runtime but note how it is their characters that irritate not the film itself.
With so little to actually see here, your fear as a viewer is dependent on how far you believe in theirs. If you’re prepared to buy that Heather is genuinely going through trauma in the film’s haunted house climax – and, watching it, why would you not? – then The Blair Witch Project will still chill you to the bone long after it cuts to black.