Horror & comic Geek from Minneapolis
The Blair Witch Project redefined what horror movies could be back in 1999 when it helped to kick-off the found-footage genre. Here, just weeks after the 2016 reboot, our Lance David Fier explains why the original Blair Witch Project was so innovative.
The Blair Witch Project: The Brilliance Of The Original
If you remember anything about the hyped up movies of the late 90’s, you without a doubt remember one of the most impactful horror films of all time, The Blair Witch Project. With a brand new chapter simply entitled Blair Witch now doing well in theatres, we should consider what made the original amateur film project, with a small budget of about $60,000, such a cultural phenomenon of it’s time.
The Blair Witch Project received wide acclaim from critics, despite much of the public considering it to have been underwhelming. That modest budget eventually grew close to $750,000 after studio involvement led to new reshoots, unused endings, and a sound remixing. Still, with a total worldwide box office return of over $248 million, it has been one of the most successful independent films ever made. But how could it have been so successful, and why would it have been so memorable if many movie goers labeled it a disappointment?
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Let’s take us a closer look and, to be perfectly clear, I will be skipping past the abysmal 2000 sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, proceeding as though it does not exist.
Everyone will agree its better that way.
First, I personally really enjoyed The Blair Witch Project. It wasn’t the first in the “found footage” genre, but it definitely set a new standard. I was 15 years old when I first saw the film and I can remember being mesmerized by it’s effective suspense building and the panic inducing isolation we felt for it’s characters. It still holds up 17 years later with it’s simple premise. A trio of film students, investigating the claims of multiple murderer Rustin Parr, venture into the heavy forests of Maryland where he lived as a hermit in the 1940’s. Abducting 8 children and killing them in pairs he blamed his actions on Elly Edwards, a woman executed for witchcraft in the late 1700’s. Naturally the young team get much more than they bargain for as they are soon lost and terrorized by haunting sounds in the darkness every night, and the eventual disappearance of one of the three friends. The eerie sounds echoing through the trees are thereafter replaced by his agonizing screams. Based on the footage recovered from the scene, we the audience are left to believe a similar gruesome end to what befell the kidnapped children decades earlier claim the remaining 2 students. It was gripping, unique, and captured the essence of how the unknown darkness of the deep woods and separation from civilization can tap into some of our deepest fears. The film itself however, is only a fraction of what made it impressive.
In 1999, the internet was still in it’s infancy, and along with that came much more naiveté from it’s earliest casual users. Basically people were much more willing to believe everything they read on the internet, even though that often seems to still be a problem today. The original website, which now simply promotes the new Blair Witch movie originally featured mock missing persons reports, police files, and life histories including government I.D.’s and photographs clearly implying the true existence of the missing youths. The three lead actors, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, portrayed fictionalized versions of themselves of the same name to further the illusion that these were true unsolved missing persons cases. There were also additional staged interviews from actors playing residents of the real town of Burkittsville, Maryland and neighboring areas, who claim to have witnessed strange events and to have even encountered Elly Edwards, the Blair Witch.
This was what truly made Blair Witch successful; the uncertain mystery of it. It really hit a chord with the public and for a time was all anyone could talk about. People actually became convinced that this was a true story, of a true legend, and that the footage was authentic. The film also featured events and an ending that was very ambiguous, which then led to a plethora of theories from fans and quack researchers of what actually happened to the three poor souls in the video tape. Most of the conversations were conducted as if everything surrounding the tale was legitimate fact! The Blair Witch Project is often cited as one of the first of any platform or product to fully utilize “viral marketing” to spread it’s buzz. Keep in mind that this was at a time when many more people had still not yet connected to the web and the current primary engines of viral media such as twitter and facebook, or anything like them, did not yet exist. The internet was new and not nearly as integrated into our lives as it is today, making The Blair Witch Project’s marketing campaign all the more impressive, and paving the way for a revolution in how artists and companies approach promotional strategies.
As the consumers most of us know it’s not always the product itself, but the pretty packaging, and the original Blair Witch nailed it. This is partially why the first film was seen as a disappointment in certain cases, because the online advertising got everyone so spooked and intrigued that some felt that they were let down when it didn’t fulfill their imaginations. I’ve seen the trailers and marketing for the newly released film and they are relying heavily on the mystique of the original to get people interested. I have also seen the new film in the cinema and to be honest it offers little more than it’s 1999 counterpart, but because of the lingering fascination surrounding the original, the current chapter is actually doing very well with audiences. That is how a simple fake film project achieved such a pop cult status that no one involved could have ever imagined. Not unlike many of the often more appreciated classics before it such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs. The Blair Witch Project did indeed heavily influence the course of the American horror film, despite not being nearly as impactful as the aforementioned. It was a very well made amature film and credit must be given to it’s creators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Yet the true driving force behind the success of this franchise will always be it’s brilliant utilization of the early internet to rocket it to a level it could never have otherwise achieved.
Thanks for reading!
Lance David Fier is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @LanceDFier