Three film students go missing after traveling into the woods of Maryland to make a documentary about the local Blair Witch legend leaving only their footage behind.
The Blair Witch Project is a 1999 American psychological horror film, written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. It was reconstructed from video and super 16mm footage shot by three film students who disappeared while hiking in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994. It is ostensibly a documentary about the legend of The Blair Witch, whose murderous activities stretch back as far as the 1700s.
Prior to watching this a couple of weeks ago, the last time I saw this film was when it first came out back in 1999. After viewing it, being about 17 years old and having to walk home after a midnight showing through some woods, I’ll admit it was a pretty scary time, and helped establish The Blair Witch in my mind at least as one of the scariest experiences I have ever had with any movie. Part of me wishes that was how I left it, as watching it now some 13 or so years later, it has tarnished my viewing really, as the ‘older me’ really doesn’t get what I was scared of. It makes it tricky to review, as I have two very conflicting thoughts, but in the interest of fairness I should offer them both.
First things first, I’ll start with the film’s plot. In October 1994, film students Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard set out to produce a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. They travel to Burkittsville, Maryland, formerly Blair, and interview locals about the legend of the Blair Witch. The locals tell them of Rustin Parr, a hermit who kidnapped seven children in the 1940s and brought them to his house in the woods, where he tortured and murdered them. Parr brought the children into his home’s basement in pairs, forcing the first child to face the corner and listen to their companion’s screams as he murdered the second child. Parr would then murder the first child. Eventually turning himself in to the police, Parr later pleaded insanity, saying that the spirit of Elly Kedward, a witch hanged in the 18th century, had been terrorizing him for some time and promised to leave him alone if he murdered the children.
On the second day, the students begin to explore the woods in north Burkittsville to look for evidence of the Blair Witch. Along the way, a fisherman warns them that the woods are haunted, and recalls a time that he had seen strange mist rising from the water. The students hike to Coffin Rock, where five men were found ritualistically murdered in the 19th century, and then camp for the night. The next day they move deeper into the woods, despite being uncertain of their exact location on the map. As time goes on, the trio continue to stay lost and wander round in circles. Creepy things also start to happen……..noises, backpacks getting rummaged through, crazy little stick figures, and soon enough one of the group goes missing. Believe it or not, there are people who haven’t seen The Blair Witch, so I will say that there may be some spoilers coming up. I will, though, for the benefit of my good friend Rae in particular, say that the only part of the movie to show any gore is when one of the group finds a bundle which contains teeth, blood and hair. That’s it! The horror on show here is all psychological, and whilst I felt it worked all those years ago, it now seems quite dated and looks even more amateurish then I ever remembered.
The casting was great, and although the filmmakers tried to pass it off as a true story (more on that in a minute) they were actors. The actors were given no more than a 35-page outline of the mythology behind the plot before shooting began. All lines were improvised and nearly all the events in the film were unknown to the three actors beforehand, and were often on-camera surprises to them all. I quite like the way this was done, as the reactions did seem genuine and obviously this is the reason why.
The marketing for this film was superb. I have posted below some details taken from the films official website and the IMDB trivia section, as it goes to show just how inspired it was, and what $25 million on advertising can do.
An internet campaign had begun far in advance of the movies release. The filmmakers had created a website before filming had even begun, and this was before we all had the easy access we do now. It outlined the story of the Blair Witch, and was initially designed as a way to sell the concept to potential investors. As the general public of the internet began to discover the site, word spread. The studio picked up the ball on the internet promotion, and began the largest web hype campaign in history. The website was overhauled, and clips from the ‘found’ footage were put online. The campaign proliferated the idea that the documentary was real, that the filmmakers had gone missing in the woods, and the tapes had been found and edited down to tell the story of what happened to the three young people. The legend spread, and pirated copies of the movie were ‘leaked’ into the hands of internet movie writers. These online journalists helped to increase the furore by singing the praises of the ‘documentary’. The rich backstory of the legend of the Blair Witch, created by the filmmakers, was so well written and comprehensive that it served to make the idea that the events were true even more convincing.
By the time all this had gone on and before the movie even opened, fan sites had already been set up, and the movie had become one of the most highly anticipated releases of all time. The Blair Witch Project had become a cinematic event. In it’s first week, it grossed $28.5 million. By the end of it’s run, it had grossed nearly $250 million worldwide. This meant it had made the biggest box office gross to production cost in movie history. It retained this record for years, until another Blair Witch-style phenomenon, Paranormal Activity, took over that record.
I originally loved the ending, and thought it was one of the scariest and simplest endings I had ever witnessed. Whilst it is never really clarified, through the dialogue at the start of the film it is assumed that the house the group find at the end is that of Rustin Parr, the Burkittsville child murder who claimed to be under the influence of the Blair Witch. This “fact” is supported in both the film’s sequel, Book of Shadows, (which I saw and hated as soon as it came out, and have never seen since. The polar opposite of my feelings here could happen, maybe if I watch it again now I’ll love it?) and D.A. Stern’s companion book, The Blair Witch Dossier. I found the dossier fascinating, and according to the backstory outside of what is mentioned within the film, following the execution of Rustin Parr his house was burnt to the ground by irate Burkittsville citizens. That then begs the question of how the hell did the group find it near the end of the movie if it had been destroyed over fifty years earlier? One theory on the Blair Witch forums I browsed through is that Mike, Josh and Heather somehow got trapped or taken back in time by the Blair Witch which explains how the house appears to still exist and why they can’t get out of the woods. Apparent confirmation appears in Blair Witch Volume 1: Rustin Parr; in 1941, after the destruction of the Parr house, it is revealed that the Black Woods possesses supernatural powers that manages to distort time, briefly sending the main character back in time to the still standing Parr house, where ghostly visions of the group being killed in the basement are seen, suggesting that Parr killed them. It definitely adds more intrigue to it, and whilst the directors have never really confirmed anything, and were not involved with the sequel, they are planning on an official sequel which could well shed more light on the mystery.
Well, I have gone on long enough, and tried to offer some details on the film and books relating to it. Whatever your thoughts are on The Blair Witch, no one can deny the legacy it has had on films. It started the recent trend for the found footage genre, and it has been parodied/imiated/copied so many times, and I can’t imagine there are many people that haven’t seen the crying close up face of Heather at some point in their lives! Factoring in the time travel mythology, if I look at it that way the ending actually sounds great, but taken on face value from the movie alone, whilst the 17 year old me would score this around an 8/9 out of ten (because of the feelings it gave me at the time!) the older and maybe wiser me would score it considerably less. Therefore, an average final score of 6/10 will have to suffice.