The Blair Witch Project (1999)
• Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
• Writer: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
• Cast: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard
Three film students travel to the town of Burkittsville to make a documentary investigating the legend of the Blair Witch – who is believed to stalk the nearby Black Hills Forest. The team set off into the woods, and they’re never seen again…but a year later, their footage is found.
Blair Witch (2016)
• Director: Adam Wingard
• Writer: Simon Barrett
• Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid
James is the brother of Heather, one of the film students from the first movie. While investigating her disappearance – almost 20 years later – he finds some new footage online, which seems to suggest his sister might be alive. This draws him, and his documentary-making friends, back to the Black Hills Forest. Their footage is later found.
Yeah, some people never bloody learn!
The Blair Witch Project was one of the first horror films I can vividly remember watching as a teen, so this has special resonance for me. While found footage horror films are painfully commonplace now, The Blair Witch Project really ignited this popular sub-genre of film-making. It was also a game changer in terms of how it was marketed – a viral campaign, including a website pitching it as a true story, created so much hype around the film, it really did become a cinematic phenomenon.
There’s no denying this is an important film in many ways, and the tension and frights are very skilfully done. I don’t think I’d ever list The Blair Witch Project as a ‘favourite’ though, if I’m honest. The bickering and – ultimately – aggression between the three characters is really aggravating and at times hard to watch, and it makes it difficult to empathise with them – there’s a part of me that’s rooting for the Blair Witch, just to shut them up! However, the tension between the characters does really add to the mounting sense of panic and threat.
The intensity felt in the film is pretty genuine – the actors stayed in character for much of the eight day shoot, camping in the woods, on meagre rations, and often uniformed on what was about to happen. One of the actors, Michael C. Williams, refers to it as ‘guerilla filmmaking’! Much of the fighting and anger between the three main characters was genuine too. In fact, it was the writers’ intention for Josh and Heather to get along better in the story than they did in real life. The tension between those two actors got so bad that the directors opted to change the story so that Josh was the first to go missing. Director Eduardo Sanchez said ‘After we started to shoot we realized that Heather and Josh were fighting a lot. Like, annoyingly a lot. Just distractingly too much. So, Dan and I made the call of pulling Josh out instead of Mike. Everyone expected Mike to be pulled out. That was the biggest curveball that we threw at them.’
17 years later, we have Blair Witch.
Blair Witch didn’t have the hype or the recognition of the first film. In fact, it was kept top secret that the film was being made, and it was even promoted under a fake title. I was pleasantly surprised by Blair Witch. It’s been a while since a film actually scared me, and this did have my pulse racing for the last fifteen minutes or so. The characters were far more likeable than the first movie, which helps draw you into the story. One other particularly strong point – in my opinion – was the approach to found footage, which I thought was quite original. The use of hands free technology and – even more interesting – drone footage, added something a bit different, both in comparison to the first film and to the cacophony of other found footage films out there.
Of course, this wasn’t the first sequel to the 1999 phenomenon. Book of Shadows was rushed out in 2000, to cash in on the success of the first film. This wasn’t a found footage film, rather just a standard horror film – a group of tourists, inspired by the first film, visit the woods of Burkittsville. Mediocre horror ensues. The original creative team were largely uninvolved and dismissive of this offering, and Blair Witch does not acknowledge the events of Book of Shadows – so I would not consider Blair Witch to be the third in a trilogy, but rather as an alternate (and superior) sequel.
My recommendation? This definitely makes for a strong and scary double bill, and let’s pretend Book of Shadows didn’t happen!
P.S. I’ve linked to this a couple of times above, but I would highly recommend reading Scott Meslow’s four part oral history of The Blair Witch Projecthere – it’s really interesting.