At first glance, the horror movie that seemed most primed for success in the summer of 1999 was the remake of The Haunting. While no one had been clamoring for a remake of Robert Wise’s 1963 classic, at least the talent involved in the modern revamp was promising. You had director Jan de Bont of Speed (1994) and Twister (1996) fame and even if that wasn’t quite an assurance of quality, there was producer Steven Spielberg who clearly knew a thing or two about building cinematic haunted houses. Sure, Poltergeist (1982), with its avalanche of ILM wizardry, had been a very different movie than The Haunting but anyone would’ve told you that in 1999 no audience would settle for anything less than the state-of-the-art – especially in the age of CGI – so going with the FX-heavy approach would be a must. Add to that a cast that included Liam Nesson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lily Taylor, and Owen Wilson, and any betting person would’ve pegged The Haunting to be the summer’s – possibly even the year’s! – #1 horror pic.
Far less formidable was The Blair Witch Project, an ultra-low budget independent film that told the tale of three college kids who vanished in the Black Hills near Burkittsville Maryland while shooting a documentary about the local legend of the title. Directed by film school friends Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez and starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams, with dialogue that was improvised by the performers rather than scripted, The Blair Witch Project made a splash at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and was then acquired by Artisan for distribution but, quality aside, its commercial prospects against its slick Hollywood competition looked dubious at best. But thanks to an innovative marketing campaign by Artisan that, in classic huckster fashion, sold Blair Witch as a real documentary, complete with a website that purported to give the facts behind the film, when Blair Witch finally opened in wide release in US theaters on July 30th, 1999, just seven days after The Haunting, it was already a phenomenon, landing on the covers of TIME and Newsweek simultaneously, playing to packed houses everywhere and inciting polarizing reactions at every screening.
In no time, Blair Witch, without a single Hollywood star in its cast or a single frame of CGI in the entire film, had far outpaced The Haunting at the box office. It was proof that when it comes to having the goods, you either have ‘em or you don’t. Of course, some critics of the film insisted that Blair Witch’s success was due strictly to its ingenious marketing campaign and that the American public had essentially been conned into making the movie a hit but if marketing alone could guarantee blockbuster business, no film would ever fail. Marketing can help deliver a big opening weekend, yes, but the fact that Blair Witch continued to draw big crowds for many weeks afterwards meant that word of mouth was carrying it. That word of mouth may not have always been positive but the extreme reactions that Blair Witch provoked meant it was a movie that people had to see for themselves. Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project didn’t inspire apathy. Given what a sharply divisive film it was (and still is!), it seems appropriate that Blair Witch would be one of the first major films of the Internet age because the heated conversations it ignited on countless message boards embodied the way that the internet has gone on to transform (for the worse) the nature of our cultural dialogue – with people occupying extreme positions on opposing sides, leaving little room for any middle ground. The Blair Witch Project is the very definition of a love it or hate it movie – few other cult films are more polarizing – and love it or hate it responses are the kind of discussions that fuel the online world.
Away from the fires of online antagonism, though, how does Blair Witch hold up 15 years after it both spooked and agitated audiences in the summer of ’99? Is it still worthy of being called a horror classic or is it hard to see what all the fuss was about? Is it one of the scariest films ever made or an outrageous rip-off? Your individual answer will likely fall right in line with whatever your impressions were back in ’99 – I don’t think anyone who hated it then will suddenly see its appeal now – but as someone who was a staunch supporter then, I found a return visit to those Black Hills to be a trip well worth taking.
As much as found footage films continue to be a familiar staple of the horror genre (with Bobcat Goldthwait’s well-received Bigfoot pic Willow Creek being the latest example), none of them are quite like The Blair Witch Project. Popular entries in the sub-genre like [REC] (2007) and Paranormal Activity (2009) employ the same brand of tried and true jump scare tactics as traditional horror films, goosing the audience periodically with “gotcha” style moments. Blair Witch, however, has none of that. No hands ever reach into the frame to grab unsuspecting characters, no loud noises surprise us. The movie works solely by building an escalating sense of dread, and scaring us with what we can’t see.
An often repeated anecdote claims that if you place a frog in a pan of cold water and slowly bring the water to a boil, the frog will fail to leap out in time to save itself. While that may in fact be more metaphor than truth, The Blair Witch Project is like a cinematic depiction of that scenario as Heather, Mike, and Josh all fail to react to the danger of their situation in time to save themselves.
What remains disturbing about Blair Witch upon repeat viewings is that we never quite know where the absolute line of no return lies for its characters. Outside of Heather, Mike, and Josh simply not going into the woods at all, it’s impossible to determine exactly when during their trek through the woods that they became irreversibly screwed.
Without an omniscient point of view, we lack that comforting God’s eye perspective on their predicament. Most traditional horror films clearly mark for us where the characters went wrong and what they could’ve done differently to affect a better outcome but Blair Witch unsettles us by depriving us of that knowledge. At what point do Heather, Mike and Josh seal their fate? Were they ever close to making it out alive? No matter how many times we watch the movie, we can never know. Every time I see it, I get the same disquieting sensation of passing over an imperceptible line, watching as these characters stroll unaware into their own doom. Because we as viewers know what’s going to happen (even on our initial viewing, we at least know up front that these kids wind up vanishing) and the characters don’t, we’re able to look for the earliest signs of trouble and the fact that we can’t perceive them with true certainty is part of the lasting spell of Blair Witch.
Of course, many who dislike the film do so in large part because of what they believe to be the bad decisions made by Heather, Mike, and Josh. For some, Blair Witch doesn’t work because they feel that for this trio to have gotten out of their predicament alive would’ve been as easy as following the river, or climbing a tall tree to see a road, or even taking the precaution of packing a gun.
Whether any of those suggestions would’ve been of actual use to Heather, Mike, and Josh, however, is debatable (I think it’s made fairly clear in the film that supernatural forces are keeping these kids lost and, come on, a gun certainly isn’t going to be much good against whatever’s haunting those woods). Ultimately, the situation the characters face in Blair Witch is one that’s immune to pragmatic solutions and I think accepting it as a valid no-win scenario is essential in appreciating Blair Witch.
Finally, when talking about Blair Witch you have to talk about, well, the talking. I don’t believe there’s ever been another horror film where the characters are never quiet. On that count, some have criticized Blair Witch for how annoying they found its squabbling characters but I believe that the constant chatter in Blair Witch is actually one of the keys to its effectiveness. Most horror films utilize silence in order to build suspense – for instance, think of the moments in Paranormal Activity when Katie and Micah are simply asleep in bed for long stretches of screen time – but silence is very rare in Blair Witch.
As their situation becomes increasingly dire, all that talking from Heather, Mike, and Josh serves as a reassurance (both to themselves and us) that they’re still alive, still in the game, and still in it together. But as each voice is silenced one by one, with Heather’s being the last to go, the abruptness when Heather’s voice is cut off in mid-cry is as profound a jolt as the snap of the noose in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962).
The arguments for and against The Blair Witch Project will never completely subside. It will always provoke passionate responses and that alone is a notable legacy for any film to have. The question remains: was its success purely a fluke or was it by its own merit? It can be said that all art is a combination of accident and deliberation and The Blair Witch Project is an embodiment of that. Some of the film was carefully strategized, some was improvised, but all of it bears the unmistakable evidence of craft and care. Many films have emulated it in superficial ways since but its deeper virtues remain its own.
All the great horror films are ones so primal and iconic that we can’t imagine them not existing in our collective cultural psyche. Films like Psycho (1960), Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Jaws (1975) are ones that became instantly embedded in our vocabulary when we talk about fear. Fifteen years ago, The Blair Witch Project entered into that elite pantheon. The legend of the Blair Witch herself may be bogus but the legend of The Blair Witch Project is 100% real.