Retrospective Review: “The Blair Witch Project”

It’s been over twenty years since “The Blair Witch Project” first hit the big screen ushering in not only an increased interest in independent films, but also a new era for horror movies in general while sparking the popularity of the, at the time, obscure found footage subgenre. Since debuting in 1999, the film has become a classic and one of the most talked about and infamous horror movies of the last few decades. Some have come to see it as a slow-burn examination of true-to-life horror while others call it overrated and pretentious for its lack of scares and raw cinematography. Hell, even when it was released the movie created division among film aficionados earning rave reviews from critics but also garnering nominations and even wins at the 20th Golden Raspberry Awards recognizing the worst of the year in cinema. To date it’s the highest rated movie, with an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, to earn a Razzie. It begs to question, after over 20 years and countless imitators improving on or degrading the genre the movie helped build, does “The Blair Witch Project” really hold up and has its legacy persevered?

I remember when this movie first came out on video. My cousins introduced me to it when I was only eleven years old, a year after it was released, as they had fallen for the marketing campaign that pegged it as a real-life story. At the time found footage movies, while nothing new, were not very mainstream. The idea of filming a story through the perspective of the characters as if it were a home movie wasn’t exactly a popular method. Viral marketing had yet to become a thing as well. The internet was still young, so word of mouth and critical reviews were a big selling point. “The Blair Witch Project” was arguably the first film to successfully utilize viral marketing as we know it today. Because of this combination of factors, the still irrelevant genre and the unique approach to advertising, crowds rushed to the theater to see what the fuss was all about with many believing the movie actually happened in real life and what we were seeing was actual found footage. The realistic shooting style and the believable story that left a lot to the imagination made it the talk of the nation leading the film to earn $250 million at the box office setting the record for the most profitable indy film of the time thanks to its scant budget. It’s legacy helped establish found footage as a horror genre staple leading to films like “Paranormal Activity”, “REC”, “Cloverfield” and more giving viewers a unique perspective by putting them right in the action of the horror experience.

So, from a legacy standpoint, the impact of “The Blair Witch Project” can’t be denied. While it didn’t establish its genre, or, hell it didn’t even reinvent it as many later compared it negatively to found footage pictures that predated it, it popularized what would become a cheap but marketable gimmick for filmmakers to exploit. Since it’s inception the found footage subgenre has evolved to include superhero films like “Chronicle”, comedies like “Project X”, action dramas like “End of Watch”, fantasies like “Trollhunter” and even first person perspective films like the action feature “Hardcore Henry”. All of these movies owe their popularity and success to “The Blair Witch Project” which, for better or worse, came to define the standards for found footage and set the bar for every feature that followed. Few have managed to capture the same raw effect of “The Blair Witch Project” while some have built on the foundation to create some of the most memorable horror movies of the past few decades.

But does a legacy make a movie great? Just because “The Blair Witch Project” set the standard does that make the movie itself good 20 years later? Well, that depends on who you ask. For me personally I enjoy it every year. It’s a staple of Halloween and October viewing for me and every time I watch it the effect is different. I’ve sat through it as nothing more than background noise and I’ve been completely invested to the point where I needed to turn on the lights because it scared me so much. This is the kind of movie most people either love or despise and some might find it weird that there is a middle ground. It all depends what you’re in the mood for and the key is that “The Blair Witch Project” gives you a little bit of everything while also giving you very little. It’s a story of three humans going through a terrifying and relatable ordeal, being lost in the woods with an unknown predator stalking them. The fact that the three actors, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams, were only given a short synopsis and made up most of their dialogue on their own with notes from the crew leading their actions on screen made it even more believable because most of the reactions, dialogue and even the fear itself are sincere and real. This is how people really talk and interact when they’re in such a stressful situation making it a very, for lack of a better word, human movie at its core.

This setup is used to create two different kinds of movies, the slow burn horror and the jump scare horror which often clash but here they meld well because of the realistic setting. It’s the slow burn elements that often rub people the wrong way and I can see why. For those looking for a more action-packed horror experience, which were popular at the time even competing against this movie when it was release in “The Haunting”, this movie would have and still is a disappointment. It takes its time building up to a finale without answering a lot of questions. The viewer themselves are left to wonder about what we don’t know, which actually becomes the scariest part of the film. The unknown is always terrifying, even more so here where many audiences were, for the first time, put in the position of knowing only what the victims know. Today this idea is watered down and ineffective because found footage has been overdone, but back then in the late 90s this was a unique perspective people rarely got to see. It’s easy to sit back and separate yourself from the characters in a slasher film, but when you’re forced to experience the horror and emotion of those characters that is where true horror lies and this movie made great use of that idea. People couldn’t shout at the screen for the victim to look behind them because THEY didn’t even know what was behind them. Filmgoers experienced everything with the same shock and surprise as the victims, the same effect that would go on to make movies like “Paranormal Activity” so popular. “The Blair Witch Project” remains a divisive slow burn even to this day, but its effectiveness still lasts even 20 years later as the raw camerawork and the special touches put in by the director and the cast help make it an undeniably relatable horror movie proving that its the little touches that mean the most in found footage. Because we’re shown so little what we do see has to matter and in this movie it does even on repeat viewings.

Even then a big complaint persists from naysayers that this movie is not that scary and, again, that all depends on what you want from it. There certainly are some traditionally scare moments that I think anyone could admit were effective to a point. For me the tent attack scene is still terrifying and it’s made even cooler when you realize that not only was this scene supposed to be different (we were originally supposed to see the witch when the cast ran out of the tent by one of the actors forgot to turn the camera) but everything that happens in that scene from the children noises to the tent shaking were all supposedly done by the directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez without the cast knowing what was going to happen creating a genuine response from the three actors right down to their fight or flight reactions. As a kid this made me scared to sleep in a tent. Today it’s admittedly easier to handle and not just because I’m older. The fear is watered down by the knowledge of everything that went into that scene, but I still find it effective all the same. The rest of the movie is admittedly not very scary in the same way, but it’s the scenario and its deeper exploration of the human condition that I think make it truly terrifying at its core.

Even if you don’t like the slow burn, more character-based approach to horror storytelling it’s hard to argue that this approach doesn’t hold merit. Over just the last ten years we’ve seen many movies like “Hereditary”, “Get Out”, “The Witch” and “Mandy” provide us with horror experiences that are less scary because of the content and more frightening due to the situation, visuals and ideas. Their willingness to dig into the dark depths of humanity and unlock the truly terrifying realities of who we are, how vulnerable we are, how far we’re willing to go and how helpless we can be in situations beyond our control have made them some of the best horror pictures of their time. It could be argued that “The Blair Witch Project” set the stage for horror movies to embrace that approach to storytelling for a new age. It was a movie focused less on easy jump scares and more on the long game making it an intriguing exploration of real human fear rather than falling back on established mainstream formulas to make a quick buck. “The Blair Witch Project” might feel like a dated slow burn today, but maybe it was ahead of its time. A lot of what it tried to do and a lot of the elements that pissed people off are now praised by critics and hardcore horror fans as truly sophisticated horror that explores more than a knife wielding bad guy or a bloody cabin in the woods scenario. Not a lot of films did that in the 90s and those that did were often forgotten. Not “The Blair Witch Project” though. This film found the perfect mix of style, substance, pacing and marketing at a time where audiences needed, maybe even craved something different which helped it establish many standards the entire genre would have to live up to in the decades that followed and those impacts, as well as the scares hidden within, still resonate today, maybe even more so.

While “The Blair Witch Project” is still as divisive as ever and the found footage genre it helped popularize has faded mostly into obscurity in the last few years, the movie still remains a horror classic worth revisiting that holds up even over 20 years later. It’s easy to write it off as a cheap, scare-free low budget piece of trash but in reality it’s so much more. Not only did it pretty much define what became known as the found footage subgenre, it also proved that the slow burn and introspective ideas had a place in the horror genre at a time where studios felt much less likely to embrace arthouse cinema. “The Blair Witch Project” helped introduce the world to a style of horror that put us right into the action and forced us to experience the terror through the eyes of characters that felt real, vulnerable and human. The film’s willingness to focus on the humanity of its characters and their real, genuine fear set the stage for filmmakers to explore a very different side of horror that mainstream audiences had too often forsaken in favor of entertainment. It helped bring the genre back from the dark days of bloody blockbuster and into a new age of smart, well crafted pictures and it still remains one of the best in the bunch. Love it or hate it, “The Blair Witch Project” is not only an important and iconic horror movie, but a genuinely good one that’s worth experiencing again and again.

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