By Kyle G. King. This is RETROGRADING, where we want to apologize to Mike’s mom, and Josh’s mom…
THE FILM: The Blair Witch Project
THE TIME: 1999, a time of strange fears and even stranger hopes, when folks weren’t very well-acquainted with the concept of the “found footage” genre — or the functionality of online viral marketing.
RECOLLECTIONS: It was difficult to decide what to make of The Blair Witch Project when word of it first began to spread during the 1999 festival circuit. “A horror movie shot with a hand-cam”, was a risky pitch for audiences who had just enjoyed a recent slate of big-time horror productions like Sleepy Hollow and The Sixth Sense. But the unknown persisted as buzz from people unable to handle the movie quickly began to enhance its mystique. Public interest was, to say the least, piqued.
Though initially shot for around $30,000 (mere pennies for a film budget, even within the horror genre), The Blair Witch Project sold for just over a million dollars and had a marketing budget at twenty-five times that — a revolutionary move that would cement it as one of the highest grossing independent films of all time.
The film’s campaign brought viral marketing to modern audiences in a huge way. Building buzz wasn’t just about big name actors and directors, or glowing reviews, it was about the unknown and the unprovable. The film’s website provided crime scene photos and news reports to perpetuate the legitimacy of the story with a straight face, and at a time when less than 40% of American homes had access to the internet. That provided a factual discord that glamorized the aura of terror surrounding the film. Without the viral marketing campaign, The Blair Witch Project would have most certainly had lower stakes and even lower expectations, say nothing of its ticket sales.
THE DIRECTOR: The film itself, written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, is part amateur home movie and part guerrilla-style documentary filmmaking. Though the actors were committed to conveying a linear narrative, Myrick and Sanchez kept their actors on their toes by keeping fact and fiction in a state of flux — even going so far as planting other actors in the film’s first act to convincingly sell stories about the creepy goings-on around the woods in which they would soon be camping. Their method directing style (some might use the phrase, “psychological torture”), where they broke twigs and branches just out of sight of the cast’s campground, played audio of children laughing, and shook their tents — all in pitch darkness — generated authentic reactions and true terror for their actors, and later, for their audiences.
Myrick and Sanches adopted a familiar horror movie conceit by revealing more and more ominous evidence that something supernatural is afoot, which created a heightened sense of awareness in its viewers. They may have seen a setup like this many times before, but the film’s handheld camerawork introduced an element of discomfort by keeping the tension so near. This intertwined belief and disbelief, and Myrick and Sanchez always made sure to keep the two far from our grasp — our ability to parse whether the events onscreen were real or simply staged began to blur. Myrick and Sanchez created an antagonist out of nothing, letting their audiences — and their cast — fill in the shadows with their own imagination.
THE CAST: Working largely from improvisation and given only a basic framework of their character’s motivations, the central cast of three unknowns were essentially dropped in the Maryland woods and left to wander around. Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams were given cryptic instructions on where to go and what to look for, but their dialogue (and lot of their conflicts) grew from their actual fear of the woods and a general distaste for each other. Shooting all the footage themselves over an eight day hike with little food and next to no amenities, while being constantly pranked by their directors and producers is enough to drive most people insane. The trio operates as a small crew of misfits, with Heather insisting that the camera keep rolling, Mike vying for power over the map, and Josh failing to play peacekeeper. In this film, the three are as much of a threat to each other as anything else.
Camping alone in the woods and pretending to believe that a supernatural entity is lurking about is a tall order for any actor. Their dedication to guerrilla filmmaking fuels the primary struggle, while their submission to fear and the unknown is the driving force behind the film’s fear factor. The cast, just as much as the directors, took a huge risk in personal safety to deliver this watershed moment in independent film. That the movie is as scary as it is is a testament to their hard work.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? The Blair Witch Project is undoubtedly a cultural touchstone in the horror genre and a pioneer in found footage movie making. To watch it now for the first time — after swimming in a sea of copycats — won’t provide the same brilliant resonance that it first had in 1999, but revisiting it is a pure nostalgia-fest. It reminded a world of young (and broke) filmmakers that it doesn’t take millions to make a movie scary.
RETROGRADE: 8 out of 10