I love The Blair Witch Project. It’s one of my favorite films (that I weirdly don’t own), but it’s by no means a perfect movie. Writers/directors Mr. Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick got amazing performances out of the small cast but through some rough means. And its financial success (under half $1 million budget against a $248.6 million box office) convinced every jackass with half an idea and a home movie camera that they too could make a found footage movie. But with those quibbles out of the way, now is my time to gush.
We all know the plot, yeah? It’s become a cornerstone the horror genre but just in case, three young adults–Heather, Mike, and Josh–go into the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland to find evidence of the legendary Blair Witch. Things go wrong when they get lost and tensions rise amongst them. Weird things keep happening and one morning they find Josh missing. After a few more days of despair, Heather and Mike find a burned house that once belonged to a child murderer (who may have been influenced by the Witch). Something happens to Mike, and when Heather reaches the basement something happens to her. The three are never heard from again. Sounds pretty uneventful when summed up that way, but the art is in the execution.
One of the things that made this movie successful was that it billed itself as a true story. Sure, that’s a staple of found footage, but when the last noteworthy movie in this subgenre was Cannibal Holocaust nearly 20 years earlier, audiences weren’t sure what to believe–especially in the time before the internet was as ubiquitous as it now is. Add in the fact that Heather, Mike, and Josh were the actors’ real names and as part of the viral marketing the three laid low, suggesting they were actually missing. Their performances of being at each others’ throats and beyond exhausted were not an act; the production crew tormented them in the woods, causing several real reactions instead of scripted performances. But it’s not quite a Stanley Kubrick situation, as the three were warned ahead of time that this was going to be a improv-heavy and at-times-tortuous job.
There’s so many little things that worked in the movie’s favor. When interviewing people at the beginning of the movie, Heather’s amazed reaction was real as the trio didn’t realize some of the people they were interviewing were paid actors. In the iconic scene where Heather is running through the woods and screams, “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!” what she actually saw was one of the production crew in white robes. The intent was for one of the cameras to catch a glimpse of the figure, titillating the audience. But Josh never turned his camera that way, so instead we have a threat the characters feel is real and present, but still a mystery to the audience. Did the character of Heather actually see something? Who knows! Spooky!
There’s a lot I love about The Blair Witch Project, but I want to share a nugget I came upon while reading up on the making of it. Casting auditions were based on the actors’ improv skills. Instead of the usual meet and greet beforehand, Myrick and Sánchez would immediately drop this prompt: you’ve were convicted of murder 12 years ago and are up for parole, now state your case. Out of all the auditions Heather’s stood out as she was the only person who ever responded with a cold, “I don’t think I should be.” Such a shame that her career never really took off after this–outside of fucking Max Headroom in the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, Taken–but later she wrote a book about growing pot, so you do you, girl.
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