I don’t think there is a more polarizing film in my lifetime than The Blair Witch Project. Debated, contested, even hated upon release. Those feelings have not lessened over two decades. Thankfully that same passion is evident with those that love the film.
Since it’s original theatrical release, I’ve loved this movie. 20 years ago I was in my first “real” relationship. Going places on dates, talking about the future, and trying each other’s interests. She enjoyed horror movies, and I was a scaredy cat. I agreed to see Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and of course The Blair Witch Project. Two of these films changed the horror genre and hooked me into that world.
Blair Witch was groundbreaking for two reasons. It was the debut of the found footage film. Also, this was the beginning of alternate reality viral marketing. Through articles and interviews in the usual places like newspapers, magazines, and TV this story starts to emerge. Kids that grew up with In Search Of or Unsolved Mysteries were conditioned to accept a scary tale. Three teenagers went into the woods to film a documentary on an urban legend. They disappeared, are presumed dead, but during the search, their footage was found. College campuses and video store employees/film fans latched on to this idea. Everyone wanted to know more and that quest turned them to the new medium. The internet. Their little details and story elements were found. Some official, some that grew off the legend. It didn’t matter. The fiction was out of the writer’s control and now becoming real. Part of the appeal of comic books is the story doesn’t end. There’s always another Spider-Man comic. This was the first experience outside of comics for an infinite story.
The movie also brought the first person found footage style into the world. A film making technique that changed not only the horror genre but also science fiction, with elements sprinkled across all other genres. Some found it jarring, so much so they couldn’t watch the entire movie. I found it engrossing. While seeing this dark movie in a darkened theater I felt enveloped by the picture. So much so if I turned around I would have expected to see a bundle of sticks and twine and not the projector. While watching the movie it started to rain outside. At the same time, it was raining in the movie. I no longer knew the separation between fantasy and reality. I let the Blair Witch take me completely into this new world. While scared to death, I didn’t want to come out.
As the truth of the filming came out it didn’t take away from the movie. It caused me to love it more. Three actors, filming themselves. No script was given to any of them, just notes hidden by producers who are also hiding in the woods. Actual anger and drama on screen. Horrible draining working conditions which come across on camera as genuine fear. Filmed for the price of a double wide. Despite being a work of fiction it’s one of the most genuine experiences ever filmed.
As successful as the movie is, it has failed at every attempt besides the original lightning. A fake documentary about the fake documentary, Curse of the Blair Witch, aired on the SciFi channel prior to theatrical release. A great dessert if you loved the meal that is the original movie. Not much on its own, but a nice addition to something you already enjoyed. Then Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows put the franchise in a corner and killed it for 16 years. Still one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I saw Blair Witch 2 and went to a high school production haunted house on the same night. The haunted house was scarier and had better production. Then a surprise sequel. Blair Witch showed up in 2016. Better than Book of Shadows but still not touching the original. The original Blair Witch Project is like a parent giving birth to a gifted child. The creator of this special magical thing now has no idea what to do with it.
The found footage style has led to movies like the Paranormal Activity franchise, V/H/S, and Cloverfield. Cloverfield was the catalyst for me to become a blogger and pop culture writer. I’m not here if not for that movie, which doesn’t exist without the Blair Witch Project. While I understand people who don’t like the movie. Either because of the style of filming or because they enjoy it less with repeated viewings. But I will always see it as an influential ancestor partly responsible for what horror, marketing, and myself are today.