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The Blair Witch Project - A Look Back

the blair witch project poster


@Theevilbread takes a look back at The Blair Witch Project...

We all come from towns or cities with local urban legends, stories passed down from generations to peers that harbour an on-going legacy which moulds itself with each passing tongue. I came from a partially rural area, a lot of wooded areas outside of the town center and we had a few of these kind of ‘legends’, hell, one of them was located right next to my high school, a burned down building with caved-in flooring and a pentagram gratified onto the wall, often boarded up but it wasn't long before someone tore it down. Exposing the scab where it was said Satanists practiced.

The Blair Witch Project is a horror film I hold very near and dear to my heart for all the right -wrong reasons. I can confidently say that this is the scariest film I have ever seen and genuinely the only film that still unnerves me to this day. Hell, I rewatched it for this review to brush up on the lore and I had a nightmare about it later that night. I'm not sure what it is, maybe we'll find out as I spill my guts.

The Blair Witch Project image
I first saw this film when I was about nine years old on a VHS copy from Blockbusters (remember when that was still a thing?). Way back in the dark ages of 1999, the internet wasn't around to debunk anything from the disappearance of the three missing film students in The Blair Witch Project to Marilyn Manson having his ribs removed to perform fellatio on himself. Playground and water-cooler talk were all that we had and as far as a lot of people were concerned, including myself, this was real documented footage... and that scared the shit out of a young and impressionable yours truly.

Now, there is a catalyst to this, with the surprise release of a direct sequel almost twenty years later, in an age of constant reboots and remakes, this is something I'm quite hopeful for, even if it's most likely a reboot in the guise of a sequel, whatever, I'll take any more Blair Witch where I can get it.

A quick history lesson. Before The Blair Witch Project, the "found footage" horror genre was very sporadic, the only notable entry was the 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust which shares some similarities with The Blair Witch Project, including an advertising campaign aimed to convince the general public that this was real, documented footage that had been uncovered and that all the horror transpiring on-screen, actually happened. A snuff film, basically. Ironically, the director of Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato) was taken to court because people genuinely thought he had murdered his cast members, which he of course hadn't, he had to bring them in and show documentation of the make-up process to prove his innocence.

Of course, "found footage" is all too common these days, hell, the horror genre is very, very saturated with entries. The financial success of The Blair Witch Project propelled this, having being shot on a minuscule budget of about $20,000 and having grossed an enormous $248 million worldwide, making it one of the most financially successful independent films of all time.

Most of this success is credible to the flawless viral marketing campaign; this is where viral marketing originated people, most prolific to the Internet which was still in its infancy. A website was launched to advertise the film which included a mythology, crime scene, forensic evidence, documentation and anything else you could think of to reiterate to you that this IS a true story, these people DID go missing and now you are watching REAL footage of what happened to them. Some documentaries on the lore were released including Curse of The Blair Witch which I highly recommend as it fills you completely into the mythology and presents itself as a factual exploration into a very real set of disappearances and historical instances involving the 'Blair Witch'. (You can find it on Vevo with a quick Google search). After the film was released to the masses, a survey was conducted and about half of those who went to see the film bought into the hype and believed it was a true story.

The website is still currently live purely for historical reasons and can be viewed at http://www.blairwitch.com/project/main.html. All of your summer blockbuster viral marketing campaigns and San Diego Comic Con reveals and leaks owe it to The Blair Witch Project.

The plot is basic and all we need for a film that was one of the founders of found-footage horror, often imitated but never exceeded. The year is 1994 and film student Heather Donahue looks to shoot a documentary for a college project on a nearby myth surrounding the town of Burkittsville, Maryland, known as The Blair Witch. She recruits the help of her fellow student Joshua Leonard and an accomplice, Michael Williams. The three of them head off into the Black Hills forest for a weekend of camping, expecting to visit some of the mythical locations and return home for what I would assume for drinks to celebrate. The students soon discover that their lack of respect for the myth soon comes back to bite them and they become a part of the legacy. Their entire descent into the legend and their own madness is recorded with their film equipment, we don't know exactly what happened to them but as the tagline says, their footage was found a year later and after several years of forensic analysis, the footage found was edited into a cohesive narrative and released in 1999 to "incite interest" back into the disappearances.

The Blair Witch Project image
What's worth noting is that this film, for the most part, is improvisation from the actors, now some people would dispute the legitimacy of this film with this fact, however, if anything, it adds to the reality of the situation. The chaos and uncertainty omitting from the footage and performances from the actors comes across as very realistic, despite what anyone says, the performances by Heather, Josh and Mike (all using their real names) are fantastic because the fear, anxiety and paranoia they are experiencing is all real. Obviously, they knew it was a fictional film but the directors and set crew would use tricks such as depleting their food resources gradually so they wouldn't notice and not tell them what they would find once they were given a set of coordinates to follow. One particular scene in the film, and you'll know it when you see it, is harrowing because of these conditions.

The structure of the horror in the film is what I can best describe as a slow burner, things slowly start to escalate as the days progress and film makers lack of respect for mythology seems to showcase itself, we start from the groups hearing sounds in the distance to being left trinkets outside of their tent to being physically chased by unseen forces in the middle of the night. The handheld camera footage is the real star of this film and works perfectly with the scares presented in the narrative, one of my biggest gripes with found footage horror is how clean and pristine it is, I'm sorry, if I'm being chased by anything demonic, I'm not standing there for a minute and a half with an HD focus on its poorly CG rendered face, give me the ambiguous horror of the unknown and unshown any day. Raw and visceral, like the woods themselves.

'The Blair Witch Project' is exactly that, a project, it's not just a film, it's an experience. Sure you can enjoy the film as it is and it's very effective on its own, especially if you pay attention to the lore at the beginning of the film which begins to parallel itself as the narrative progresses, however, I'd highly recommend trying to dive into the world created around the film as much as possible; books, games, documentaries, documentation, you're not spoiled for choice. Hell, read the Wiki page. I love this film and the world that surrounds it to pieces and I'm very excited that they're finally doing a sequel to continue the lore. It's been long enough.

...what's that you say? There already is a sequel?

'Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows' is a whole other story.

Stay tuned.

Jozef Hamilton

Twitter:@theevilbread

Images: IMDb

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