THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT turns 15 this year. Perhaps you can remember the sensation it was, way back in 1999. A low-budget "found footage" horror movie, with three young amateur filmmakers heading into the dark heart of the woods to make a documentary about the legendary "Blair witch". An Internet-led, carefully-orchestrated marketing campaign created a massive wave of word-of-mouth. When THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT finally opened in the US in the summer, it was a box-office smash, eventually grossing nearly $250 million worldwide against a tiny $60,000 budget.
Then came the backlash. People said BLAIR WITCH was boring. It wasn't scary enough. And what was up with that ending and the guy standing in the corner of a room? A year later, the fast-tracked sequel BOOK OF SHADOWS:BLAIR WITCH 2 arrived - a poorly thought-out idea, badly executed- and killed the fledgeling BWP franchise stone dead.
I watched the original again yesterday and I still don't agree with the naysayers. I like it's rough camcorder video 'n' 16mm charm. I'm glad it doesn't rely on jump-scares, a lazy way to terrify an audience. Plus, (15 YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT!) it doesn't show you the Blair Witch herself. She's talked about earlier on - even described in some detail - but there's no sign of the titular lady herself.
What BLAIR WITCH has in spades is atmosphere. It taps into the primal fears we all have, whether we admit it or not. The helplessness of being lost. The foreboding darkness of the nighttime woods. Mysterious shouts and cries heard in the distance. Our imagination is scarier than any movie special effect, a fact the film-makers exploit ruthlessly.
BLAIR WITCH also has brevity - it runs for just 80 minutes. It also doesn't cop out at the end. You may not like the final scene in the ruined house but at least it doesn't rely on the kind of hoary "last shock before the credits roll" that horror films have been using since CARRIE back in the '70s.
And whilst it wasn't the first, it was the catalyst for many more "found footage" horror films - REC, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, V/H/S - and not just in that particular genre. Superhero films (CHRONICLE) disaster pictures (INTO THE STORM) and science-fiction (CLOVERFIELD) have also taken advantage.
It's Halloween later this week - and a great time to check out some horror films. As well as perennials such as THE EXORCIST, THE EVIL DEAD and HALLOWEEN itself, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT surely deserves another look....and maybe a reevaluation. We owe it to those three missing filmmakers...