Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language
Directed by: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
Written by: Jacob Cruse & Eduardo Sanchez
Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams & Joshua Leonard
The 90’s get a bum rap for horror, because this decade had its share of gems and even a few new classics. Topping the list of sensational 90’s horror is the divisive BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. This found footage flick was shot on a miniscule budget with a tiny crew and little to no on-screen special effects. Instead of showing you gory witchcraft and scary monsters, BLAIR WITCH PROJECT takes a less-is-more approach that lets the viewer’s imagination run wild with what could possibly be lurking in the woods. Due to overwhelmingly positive response from festival screenings and online marketing, this small indie opened in summer 1999 and broke records for being one of the most profitable films of all-time (making its budget back over 4,100 times).
In October 1994, three film students set out to make a documentary about a terrifying piece of folklore. They travelled to the small town of Burkittsville, Maryland to investigate the Blair Witch. Supposedly this witch was responsible for the disappearances of many children and was even connected to a local murderer. However, townsfolk write it off as a scary story, though they seem afraid of going into the neighboring woods (where the witch supposedly resides). Being idiots and aspiring to make a good film, the students trek out into the forest…only to become hopelessly lost and find themselves being hunted by something. This is their footage.
BLAIR WITCH PROJECT took an unconventional approach in its filmmaking techniques, almost to an arthouse degree. The film was shot with the three cast members hiking through the day to various locations (clues left for them by the two directors) and recording improvised scenes. At night, the directors would find the actors and proceed to terrorize them with strange sounds, weird items, and creepy decisions that would be considered “dick moves.” What resulted is three performances that don’t feel like performances at all, instead we’re watching three tired individuals who are nearing closer and closer to having a mental breakdown.
This is all made much creepier by the locations containing a genuine sense of dread. There’s something naturally threatening about being out in the woods late at night. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez exploit that fear for everything it’s worth. Things as simple as a pile of rocks, oddly shaped sticks, and small sounds become downright terrifying in the context of this film. The folklore about the Blair Witch is masterfully laid out during the first third through interviews with townsfolk and documentary bits that detail disturbing local history. The legend of the Blair Witch was entirely fabricated, but it seems to be a mixture of urban legends and classic folklore blended into a nightmarish mythos.
Though it barely runs over 80 minutes (counting credits), the film excels in dishing out old-fashioned dread and genuine fear. If you’ve ever heard creepy noises and haven’t been able to explain them or haven’t been brave/foolish enough to check them out, then you’ll likely find plenty of shiver-inducing moments in this film. The sound design elevates the fear tenfold with things being heard and never seen. One scene in a tent ranks up there with my scariest movie scenes of all-time. That sequence freaked me out when I saw it as a teenager and continues to freak me out to this day.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT fooled numerous people into thinking it was real footage (handheld horror wasn’t popular at the time) and that effect comes from convincing performances, less-is-more scares, a hopeless atmosphere of impending doom, a well-crafted mythos that works its way naturally into the story, and a realistic execution. It’s hard to believe that this movie was edited down from 19(!) hours of workable footage into 81 dread-soaked minutes. Supposedly, a much longer (and potentially scarier) director’s cut exists, but it hasn’t seen the light of day yet.
To address a minor complaint that viewers might have with this film, BLAIR WITCH does have shaky camera work, but this seems believable with the characters running for their lives through the pitch-black woods. The plot’s supernatural elements are dialed back to a point where they might be mere coincidences driving the characters insane, making the story function as both a stellar psychological horror flick and a terrifying found footage horror flick. If you dig less-is-more scares and stuff like the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (which wouldn’t exist without this film), THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is made for you. Over a decade later, this film still sends chills up my spine!