The Blair Witch Project (1999) Movie Review - Found Footage That Sparked a Genre

Horror, Supernatural, Found Footage | 81 Min
The Blair Witch Project (1999) Review
  • Director: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
  • Actors: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard
  • Writers: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, Heather Donahue
  • Producers: Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English
  • Parental: Bad Language
  • Horror, Supernatural, Found Footage | 81 Min

Three film students vanish after traveling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend leaving only their footage behind.

We have just over seven days of our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature remaining. Today we are taking a look at the 1999 Found Footage horror movie that started it all – The Blair Witch Project. I am sure every horror fan has heard of this movie. It was absolutely enormous when it released. Shot on a tiny budget, it went on to capture the minds of millions, becoming a staggering hit in the process. Scenes from the movie are instantly recognisable and have been parodied in numerous shows and movies.

I watched The Blair Witch Project all the way back in 1999 and have caught bits and pieces of it again a few times over the years. I only actually watched it through for the second time a few days ago for this review. The obvious question here is going to be whether it has held up to the test of time? Let’s take a look.

The Blair Witch Project – Synopsis

Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project is a collection of footage supposedly left behind by three students who went missing in the woods while filming a documentary. The footage follows Heather Donahue, Mike Williams, and Josh Leonard (playing versions of themselves) as they journey to the forests of Burkittsville, Maryland in search of the legend of the Blair Witch. Together, they head out there with cameras, filming equipment, and, apparently, six million batteries. After a few interviews with townsfolk. The group head into the woods where an initially dull investigation suddenly turns terrifying.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) Review

Heather apparently doesn’t like Scotch….. Can’t relate!

Being lost in the woods is scary enough but the protagonists of The Blair Witch Project are seemingly being pursued, and harassed, by something that wants to harm them. The three spend numerous days trying to find their car and numerous nights cowering in their tents. Bizarre sounds haunt their twilight hours while the dawn brings with it terrifying revelations. It’s simple but compelling.

A Found Footage Pioneer

It’s easy to scoff at the words “found footage” nowadays. Movies such as The Nothing and other similar piles of dreck have dragged the genre down to an almost comical level. But that understates the importance of the genre. Admittedly, Found Footage has become a way for talentless directors to rope in their friends to make a crap movie and earn a few bucks in the process. But the importance of the style to horror movie making is significant.  I have actually covered five found footage movies in my 31 Days of Halloween feature and I believe all deserve their place in the list.

Back in 1999, found footage was not a significant player in the movie industry. You are going to have to look back to the 80s and the enormously overrated exploitation movie Cannibal Holocaust to find a significant horror movie in this genre. Man Bites Dog and The Last Broadcast made an impact but the found footage horror genre wasn’t really a thing. This made The Blair Witch Project feel incredibly real and very fresh. You didn’t see horror movies that looked like this, it was unmistakeable and felt completely unique.

Marketing Genius

The Blair Witch Project was an absolutely massive hit and it seemingly came out of nowhere. Launched alongside a viral marketing campaign that was pretty much the first of its kind. The Blair Witch Project sparked an enormous amount of interest upon its release. I actually remember people believing that this movie was real. When it comes to movie marketing, that is a very impressive feat. 

This film was marketed as a true story. The actors were denied opportunities to earn money promoting the film and they were treated as actual missing people. A website was launched that presented the movie’s story as non-fiction and missing posters were stuck up in random towns. This was truly revolutionary movie promotion. Movie promotion for a new generation of teens who were ready to believe anything they read online.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) Review

The Blair Witch Project featured an inspired viral marketing campaign.

The internet is so ingrained into most people’s everyday life in the 2020s that is almost hard to imagine life without it. With this in mind, it is also almost impossible to imagine filmmakers being able to trick an entire generation. But Gen X were pretty dull when it came to the internet and Millennials were too young to question what they saw. Sure, a quick missing person search would reveal the truth and the issue would be put to rest pretty sharpish. But the landscape in 99 was vastly different. Funnily enough, Paranormal Activity would come along a decade later and get younger Millennials with the same trick all over again. Man we are a dumb generation! 

High Expectations

To say that expectations were high would be something of an understatement. If The Blair Witch Project would have quietly released it would have been a horror movie that punched above its weight and likely a cult hit. Instead, the marketing campaign made the movie go viral before “going viral” was really a thing. People were excited and expecting to be terrified.

The all too familiar scene featuring a crying Heather talking to the camera was absolutely everywhere. More people had watched that lady’s runny nose than had watched the moon landing. People were saying it was one of the scariest movies ever. There was something of an obsession with the movie and that, in some ways, worked against it.

Let’s be real, The Blair Witch Project was never going to be able to live up to the hype. It has an even tougher job doing that 20+ years later. The hype was ridiculous and it would have taken a perfect movie to match up to that. The Blair Witch Project is a really good movie but not a perfect one.

A Few Issues

We’ll look at a few of the issues first. For one, The Blair Witch project just isn’t that scary. It has its moments but time has worn the spikes of horror down to dull, blunt, points. What worked then doesn’t work now and what is left is, perhaps, not enough for modern movie watchers. Horror has changed and, while The Blair Witch inspired, and even authored, some of that change, It is a victim of it now.

The dynamic of the three characters can be somewhat awkward. There is a distinct sense that these guys didn’t know each other very well and the chemistry between them is lacking. This improves as the movie goes on but lines feel stilted and unnatural for much of the movie’s length. I am aware that the characters were supposed to not know each other too well but it still feels jarring.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) Review

Apparently the directors set up objects for the cast to find in the mornings

Whether or not you find the movie interesting is entirely down to your personal preference. It’s three students arguing in the woods, at the end of the day. If you don’t buy into the potential horrifying mystery at the heart of the story, you will be left with nothing to grasp onto.

The movie also features a few logical inconsistencies. It’s hard not to wonder why Heather keeps making the documentary despite their predicament and where did all these batteries come from? The shaky camera effect is on show here more than most other found footage movies, as well, which will likely put a few people off. With that being said, these are, in the grand scheme of things, fairly minor issues.

What it Does Right

When considered against a backdrop of thousands of found footage movies all playing copycat. It is easy to dismiss what The Blair Witch Project gets so right. But it pays to remember that this is the movie that defined how to make an effective found footage horror movie. It is packed full of atmosphere. Those night time scenes in the tents are still brilliantly effective. The performances of the main cast completely draw you in. They believe in what is happening to them and they try very hard to make you believe it too.

The actors here were harassed night in and night out by the production team. They were underfed, tired, and seriously pissed off meaning these reactions are genuine. They stand, even today, as some of the most authentic performances in found footage history. Heather’s breakdown scene is still among the best in horror history.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) Review

The students were filming a documentary about the Blair Witch.

Pacing is nigh on perfect. Once the action starts, it’s night after night of relentless abuse. The use of the woods is brilliant. I don’t know if the woods have ever felt so damn claustrophobic as they do here. You actually share in the character’s desperation as they struggle to find a way out. You invest in the characters because it is so easy to relate to their predicament. So much of this movie is feasible and that’s what makes it scary. Are the things they experience actual hauntings or simply mental breakdowns? Who knows and that is how this movie fooled a generation.

Should You Watch The Blair Witch Project?

If you are any kind of horror fan, you should definitely watch The Blair Witch Project. It is something of a marvel in the horror genre. Made on a shoestring budget and promoted using an ingenious viral marketing campaign, there wasn’t many movies around at the time like this. It’s fair to say that Blair Witch paved the way for similar movies to have huge success years later. It doesn’t live up to the hype, it simply can’t. It’s not as scary as history would suggest and there are issues throughout. But this is such an important movie. It still has believable performances, tons of atmosphere and some great moments. It is an important piece of modern horror history and deserves the respect it has earned.

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