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This Week in Genre History: The Blair Witch Project fooled us, I'll admit it
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
I will admit it right now: For a short, but not non-existent, period of time, I thought The Blair Witch Project might be real. I’m sure to you, young, savvy, tragically hip internet savant, this seems ridiculous. Why would anyone think a horror film was real? Did you think they really found that footage? Didn’t you realize it had the guy from Humpday in it? But you really have to think of the context. The Blair Witch Project debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999, and because it had cast unknowns (who were all playing versions of themselves, with their real names), it could conceivably list, in the credits, that the actors were all “missing” or “deceased.” The movie was made so cheaply, and so long ago (it was filmed over eight days more than a year and a half before it premiered), that it really did feel like it had just appeared out of nowhere. It really felt like the footage had been “discovered.”
The reactions from that early screening, and the way the producers and filmmakers so adroitly manipulated the early days of the internet for promotional purposes, combined to make a masterful case study in how buzz is created. Suddenly, this cheap, purposefully amateurish movie wasn’t just the biggest movie in the country, but somehow on the cover of Time magazine. It was 22 years ago this week that The Blair Witch Project hit theaters. It remains absolutely remarkable that it happened. And that I, along with millions of others, believed it was real.
Why was it a big deal at the time? The two filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, were friends and classmates at the University of Central Florida when they came to a realization: They were a lot more scared of documentaries than of horror films, which were always wedded to their conventions, giving them an inevitable predictability. What if a movie was “discovered,” as if it had already happened? What if you had no idea what had happened? What if it were real?
This seemingly modest idea — Myrick and Sanchez were just hoping a cable network would pick it up — would foreshadow the found-footage, “mockumentary” genre that would take over both movies and television over the coming decades. It made sense: This was a time, through reality television and, eventually, social media, that audiences were feeding a growing desire for its entertainment to feel “real.” So The Blair Witch Project was put together to feel “real.” Six months before Sundance, a producer hired a PR firm to construct a website with fake news stories on it, about the disappearance of the “filmmakers” from the film, and when Blair Witch played at film festivals before Sundance, volunteers gave out "MISSING" flyers with pictures of the stars/main characters Heather, Josh, and Michael. This sure felt like a lot of work for a small horror movie. Maybe there was something more here? Maybe this was real?
What was the impact? By the summer, it wasn’t just Sundance film dorks who were hearing about The Blair Witch Project. When it played at the Angelika Film Center in New York that July, audiences were already lining out the door. It came to St. Louis, where I lived, and every single screening was packed, in large part because it felt like you were a part of something: Like you were helping solve some sort of mystery. The film became about more than just being a film: It became about a whole different way of marketing, watching, and talking about movies. It really did feel like you were personally a part of something.
With that personal connection, you couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed once the illusion fell, and it turned out: It was just a movie. For all the hype and all the interest, many felt like the emperor had no clothes when they actually saw the film, which, whatever your thoughts about it 20-plus years later, certainly doesn’t resemble your normal summer multiplex fare in any remote way. It would end up nominated for multiple Razzie awards, which, in its own way, might be the craziest thing about a movie that was made for $50,000 (and made more than 4,000 times its budget). That’s truly rarified air, all told.
Has it held up? I will confess: The movie does play differently than it did in 1999, in that now it is obvious that the events of the film are not real and the people in the film did not die. (Josh Leonard really is great in Humpday.) We also have now watched dozens of “found footage” movies, so any novelty the idea might have had in 1999 has long since worn off. It’s also fair to say that the “unscripted” approach has its weaknesses, first and foremost among them being that nearly every actor in the film seems to be yelling the same thing, over and over. All told: Maybe giving them some dialogue wouldn’t have hurt.
All that said: Even though I know the film isn’t real, many parts of it still feel real. Myrick and Sanchez doubled down on their “reality” aspect, and the rough edges of both the filmmaking and the acting actually make that work even better. Heather Donohue might not be the greatest actor, but in that scene where the camera is on her face, and she has snot bubbles coming out of her nose, it sure does feel real. The insistence on doing it fast and dirty belies a narrative structure that has some actual fortitude to it: The movie is very subtle and smart about hinting at the larger mythology behind the scenes. And what still makes it work the best today remains that ending, which is mysterious and awkward and strange and therefore absolutely sings the way only something that is nearly accidental could. The Blair Witch Project was a rough version of a genre that would be polished to a bright sheen in the coming years. But that roughness still works, in its own way, magnificently. Even if it’s not real. It’s not real. Right?