Back in 1999, two plucky, independent filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez released a strange, terrifying mockumentary called The Blair Witch Project at the Sundance Film Festival.
The story concerns three documentary filmmakers who disappeared into the Black Hills in Burkittsville, Maryland, in 1994, their footage being found a year later. Around the time of its release, a deluge of horror films, including seventies and eighties Video Nasties that Mary Whitehouse had campaigned against, became available on DVD for the first time. Notorious classics like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979) and Lucio Fulci’s disgusting New York Ripper (1982), to number a few in hundreds.
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) were re-released in UK cinemas, as the Scream franchise had made self-referential, meta-fictional horror a topic of conversation for the coffee room and playground, and horror films were cool again. Adverts for Blair Witch had been blanketly released everywhere. I watched The Blair Witch Project aged 16 at a friend’s house one Halloween. I remember feeling terrified on my walk home that night, especially as his house was surrounded by forests. Revisiting it now, over twenty years since it was released, my reaction to the film is one of bemusement.
Firstly, the plot of Blair Witch borrows heavily from Ruggero Deodato’s grindhouse mockumentary Cannibal Holocaust (1979), (one of the greatest movies ever made) in its found footage concept, despite Deodato choosing the Amazon for his filmmakers to disappear into, a far more dangerous terrain. Deodato crafts his film into one of the most shocking climaxes in cinema history, and the film still attracts criticism for the real life animal slaughter, including an endangered sea turtle, which the documentary crew hack to pieces, and pretend to eat parts of for the camera. The makers of Blair Witch are big on hype, but deliver very little, and the shaky camera is off-putting, and often confusing. Made on a budget of $60,000, it eventually came in after post-production costs between $250,000-$700,000. At Sundance, the three stars of the film were listed as deceased, or missing, just as Deodato had refused his cast to do any press or work until after the film was released, in order to make it seem like a genuine snuff movie. Deodato lost his license to make movies for three years after the critical outrage at Cannibal Holocaust, but Artisan Entertainment, impressed with the marketing compaign for Blair Witch bought the rights for $1.1 million, and started an aggressive TV and internet promotion which took advantage of the early days of commercial internet. Grossing around $250 million, it remains one of the most profitable independent movies ever made, and the 37th most profitable horror movie of all time.
A sequel was hastily released to profit from the phenomenon the filmmakers now had on their hands. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) was released to reasonable box office, but negative reviews from critics across the board. In 2016, Blair Witch, a sequel to the original film was released, which wisely ignored the plot developments of the second film. Personally I detested both sequels, especially the 2016 movie, which had none of the “let’s put on the show right here”, do or die attitude of The Blair Witch Project and became another special effects heavy horror film with little to no character development.
A curious film that became a dull, forgettable franchise, life has moved on from The Blair Witch Project. Made before the chaotic, confessional culture of Social Media and mobile phones, this strange, disappointing film is the last low-budget horror of its kind that will ever seriously hit box office pay dirt. Cannibal Holocaust with a clever marketing strategy and a hit website, but without the fangs to bite.