The Blair Witch Project – Review
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 left. Today we are taking a look at the huge sleeper found footage hit from 1999 The Blair Witch Project. I am sure every horror fan has heard of this movie. It was absolutely enormous when it released despite being filmed on a shoestring budget. Scenes from the movie are instantly recognisable and have been parodied in numerous shows and movies including The Simpsons.
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. As always I will give a quick spoiler free breakdown of the movie which you can skip if you like.
We have been reviewing a horror movie a day for the entirety of October 2022 leading up to Halloween. I intended these reviews to be a bit of a shorter format but it kind of didn’t work out that way. Still, we have plenty left with a few days of October remaining so keep checking back. We are featuring a range of movies from horror classics to international hits and a few indie darlings. You can check out the entire K-O-Ween feature by clicking right here.
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.
Arriving in the nearby town, they begin to interview the residents. Many of the locals regale the three with tales of the Blair Witch. Some tell of how their parents would scare them into going to bed by saying the Blair Witch will get them. Others mention stories of a hermit that lived in the nearby woods called Rustin Parr. Parr kidnapped seven children in the 1940s, took them to his basement and murdered them in pairs. He would make one child face the wall as he killed the other. The group decide to head out to the woods to investigate further.
A History of Murder – Synopsis
When they arrive at the woods, the three interview a pair of fisherman. The men tell a story of a child who disappeared for three days a century ago. When the child returned, she spoke of an old woman whose feet never touched the ground. The men claim the woods are haunted. The group continue their investigation and begin making their way to a cemetery deep in the woods.
Seemingly becoming lost, the group decide to camp for the night. Aiming to spend only a few days in the woods, they are a little off track but remain hopeful. Restarting their trip to the cemetery the following morning, the three finally arrive. A collection of seven makeshift cairns litter the ground. A link to the seven murdered children, perhaps? Mike inadvertently knocks over one of the cairns which Heather is quick to put back how it was.
The group are forced to setup camp for the night. During the night, they hear the sound of twigs snapping outside of their tent. They shout out into the night with no response. Thinking it must be coincidence, they go back to sleep and resume heading back to the car in the morning. It gradually becomes more and more apparent that the three are lost. Heather believes she can navigate them out using a map but they are forced to set up camp once again. That night, they hear twigs snapping outside of the tent and it seems as though they aren’t alone. When they wake up the next morning, there are three cairns placed outside of their tent. It becomes increasingly clear that something strange is going on and that they need to get back to the car as soon as possible.
The Blair Witch Project is a found footage supernatural horror movie that places us with a group of three students who get lost in the woods. 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, seemingly, wants to harm them. The three spend numerous days trying to find their car and numerous nights cowering in their tents. The scares come via noises at night and revelations in the morning. It’s simple but pretty compelling stuff.
The first half of the movies serves as something of an introduction to the characters and an explanation of their motivations. Whether intentional or not, it is also a good time to get to grips with the awkward filming style of Heather. Heather Donahue had no experience operating a camera before The Blair Witch Project and it shows. I remember the style being somewhat off putting when I first watched so it takes a while to get used to it.
As we move towards the second half of the movie the events ramp up and shit gets real. We observe everything from the perspective of whoever is holding the camera. Many of the strange occurrences are midway through when the camera is switched on which offers up a sense of confusion to keep the viewer off balance. Things progress pretty drastically towards a fantastic climax that is iconic for all the right reasons.
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. Found Footage became a way for talentless directors to cobble together shit movies with their friends and make a few bucks. Despite this, the found footage explosion in the mid 2000s offered up some incredible movies and the genre’s popularity endured for a number of years. 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, however, 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.
An Enormous Sleeper Hit
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. It’s easy to talk about the marketing campaign used to promote Blair Witch and overlook just how significant it was. It fooled a entire group of people and anyone who wasn’t fooled by it was intrigued by all the fuss.
The internet is so ingrained into most people’s everyday life in the 2020s that is almost hard to imagine life without it. It is also almost impossible to imagine filmmakers being able to convince an entire generation of internet users that their movie is based on a true story. A quick missing person search would reveal the truth and the issue would be put to rest pretty sharpish. The landscape in 99, however, was vastly different.
An Unsuspecting Generation
It’s easy now, in a world with the internet present on phones, tablets, laptops, games consoles, and many other devices, to imagine that it has always been like this. This is simply not true, however, and it is only in recent years that internet access has become so easy. Back in 1999 the internet, despite growing in popularity, was still not a thing you would find in every home. I, personally, didn’t have internet access until 2001 and many of my friends simply had no interest in it. Access to the internet required a PC with a modem and a home phoneline which some people simply couldn’t afford.
The way Blair Witch was marketed was in such a way as to convince people that it was real. Trailers in cinemas simply referenced a group of missing students. The film itself wasn’t actually mentioned. A website was promoted on said trailers instructing you to visit for more info. Any media listings for the movie showed a missing person photo for three young students who disappeared in the woods. The website featured childhood photos from the cast, interviews with residents from the town they went missing in and police updates telling viewers about the case.
A Masterclass in Marketing
The Blair Witch Project was a masterclass in innovative marketing and it worked like a charm. I remember people genuinely believing that these three people were missing and that the website was being used to locate them. People had never seen anything like this and the perfectly unsuspecting public were utterly convinced. People who did not have the internet would hear, second hand, from friends who had been duped by the ad campaign and believe it was true as well. It seemed as though everyone was talking about the Blair Witch.
We live in a world of information nowadays and it is sad that we may never see something like the Blair Witch marketing campaign ever again. It was brilliant and, despite me not being duped at the time, I was hugely impressed at just how much it made people want to see the movie. There is something of a double edged sword element to this campaign, however. The public’s expectations for this movie were sky high. The hype was unreal and, for some, the movie just didn’t live up to said hype.
To say that expectations were high would be something of an understatement. If The Blair Witch Project would have been 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 and people were excited and expecting to be terrified. The scene featuring a crying Heather talking to the camera was seen everywhere. 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 number one goal of a movie is to make money. The Blair Witch Project did that by the bucketload. The movie itself, however, is perhaps not as good as the hype made it out to be. In all fairness, how could it be? 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
There are a few issues with the movie that stand out a little. For one, 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 they are often uneasy in each other’s presence. 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.
Whether you find the plot interesting depends entirely on how much you buy into the legend of the Blair Witch. It’s fair to say that there isn’t a lot going on for the majority of the film. The bulk of the content comes from the three students arguing with each other and getting annoyed at Heather’s constant filming. An argument could be made that the film is, perhaps, a little misogynistic. Heather has the finger firmly pointed at her as the cause of the problems the group face despite the two men agreeing to go along with her. There is a lot of abuse thrown at Heather and it feels a little spiteful at times.
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. These are, in the grand scheme of things, fairly minor issues, however.
Is it Scary?
Probably one of the biggest claims thrown around about The Blair Witch Project was just how scary it was. I think a lot of that reputation actually comes down to the marketing itself. People really bought into the plight of the characters before they had even watched the film.
The Blair Witch isn’t actually a particularly scary movie. The situation itself is scary and you can imagine how the people in the middle of it would feel. As I have mentioned in previous reviews of movies set in the woods, it is a terrifying environment. It is easy to buy into the feeling of desperation and isolation felt by the characters.
I do, however, think that The Blair Witch Project is one of those movies that will manage to grab certain people in just the right way. I think it will get into the heads of some viewers and absolutely terrify them. The scenes featuring the characters running in fear are very realistic and this will likely be enough for some people to feel scared for the rest of the film.
An Unsettling Atmosphere
Although the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of scares, it’s the unsettling atmosphere and the reactions of the characters themselves that will disturb the viewer. Excellent performances from the cast help convince you that there is a reason to be afraid. Heather Donahue, in particular, commits heavily to her performance and, after a slow start, she is entirely believable. Much of this is likely due to a campaign of terror waged against the cast by the directors.
It is well worth reading up on how the filmmakers terrified and harassed the actors to get realistic performances out of them. They deprived them of sleep, did not inform them of what was going to happen, and kept them hungry. As said by one of the directors, we wanted to keep them safe but we didn’t want them to be comfortable. It feels like the Blair Witch Project is a movie that likely couldn’t be made the same way nowadays.
All of that being said, however, The Blair Witch project is unsettling and will keep you on edge. The movie manages to make you invest in the characters and want them to find a way out. You are scared for them. Combine with this the awful camera work and screaming from the actors and you have a recipe for tension. Obviously the ending has to be mentioned as it is genuinely creepy.
Does it Still Hold Up?
I absolutely think it does and I think all horror fans should watch The Blair Witch Project at least once. It is still a really good movie and a very easy watch at just 81 minutes. Acting is decent and there is a decent level of tension throughout. The Blair Witch Project is a perfect example of creating an atmosphere with minimal tools.
I think the Blair Witch has received a bit of unwarranted abuse over the years. People seem to go into it expecting something incredibly terrifying and end up disappointed. People giving the movie scathing reviews are ignoring the importance of it. It was something of a shot in the arm to the horror genre back in 99. The impact it had cannot be understated and it is a significant moment in horror history. Aside from that it is just a very watchable horror with some decent performances, a palpable sense of tension, and a believable antagonist that feels genuinely threatening.
Is it a Knockout?
The Blair Witch Project 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.
Hyped up as one of the scariest movies of all time, The Blair Witch Project doesn't really live up to this hype but what movie could? Not particularly scary and featuring a few issues here and there, Blair Witch aims to unsettle the viewer with a tense atmosphere and the impending doom of the situation.
Acting can be inconsistent but comes along as the movie moves on and leads to some truly iconic scenes that have been parodied a million times over. While it's not as good as the hype suggests, it's also nowhere near as bad as some scathing user reviews may suggest. Well worth a watch and a definite must for anyone who is interested in horror, The Blair Witch has earned its place as a modern horror classic.