Horror: Re-defining the Genre in the Modern Era – The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directors: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.
Plot: In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.

It is difficult to talk about landmark horror films of the modern age without mentioning The Blair Witch Project. While most of the films on this list have been chosen for their interesting story or fresh approach to a tired and used-up plot line, The Blair Witch Project is one that really went the extra mile when it came to breaking the mould; championing a new format and sub-genre: found footage.

Found footage films are typically presented as home movie or documentary style footage that has been left behind by its main protagonists who are usually either dead or ‘missing presumed dead’. The subjects and storylines of found footage films do vary massively but the basic plot that most tend to stick to is the protagonist(s) attempting to investigate local legends or mysteries – as is the case with The Blair Witch Project – or trying to get to the bottom of strange goings on in their homes as seen in the likes of Paranormal Activity.

While The Blair Witch Project was not the first found footage film – the first film recognised as a found footage film being the 1980 Italian horror film Cannibal Holocaust – it was the first to bring recognition and acclaim to the genre. In the 19 years between the release of Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, only a small handful of films were made using the found footage format. In the 15 years since The Blair Witch Project was first released, there have been well over 100 short and feature length films, video games, YouTube series, television series and documentaries in this style, crossing many different genres including horror, sci-fi, drama and comedy.

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The Blair Witch Project opens with an inter-title explaining how three filmmaking students disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland and a year later their footage was found. The found footage begins to play, documenting the seven days and nights the trio spent filming in the woods.

Three film students, Heather, Josh and Mike set out to investigate and produce a documentary about the Blair Witch, a local legend around the area of Burkittsville in Maryland. While interviewing locals they learn of a child murder from the 1940s named Rustin Parr (reference to Rasputin, Russian mystic and faith healer) who eventually turned himself into the police claiming that a spirit named Elly Kedward (reference to Edward Kelley, 16th century spirit medium), a local woman hanged for witchcraft in the 18thcentury, had been terrorising him and promised to leave him alone if he murdered the children. The next day the three students head out into the local woods north of the town in an attempt to find evidence that the Blair Witch does actually exist, encountering more locals along the way who regale them stories about a young girl who wondered into the woods and went missing for a number of days; when she returned she talked about a woman whose feet never touched the ground before making camp at a point where five men were ritualistically murdered. The next day despite already being lost, the students move deeper into the woods, eventually locating an old cemetery containing seven cairns. They set up camp nearby and return to the cemetery after dark, accidentally disturbing a cairn and hastily repairing it. After returning to their camp the group begin to hear strange crackling noises but put it down to locals or animals. The next few days are spent trying (and failing) to find their car, while at night they are still pestered by the strange noises and awake to find numerous cairns built around their tent. Fighting breaks out amongst the group when they realise they are hopelessly lost, without a map and walking in circles. More and more strange forces appear to be at work – strange stick figures are seen hanging from the trees – and one of the group ends up missing as all trails (and screams) lead to an old abandoned house in the woods where the camera is dropped and the footage ends.

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When the film was being developed, a 68 page outline was drafted but almost all of the dialogue was to be improvised. Filming began in October 1997, and in eight days a total of 19 hours of useable footage had been filmed. Re-shoots, editing and post production took a further eight months with the film premiering at Sundance Film Festival the following year. There has been much speculation as to the actual budget of the film, with estimates ranging from $20,000 – $50,000 for the original eight day shoot and $500,000 – $750,000 final budget after various re-shoots, alternative endings and new sound mixing. The film was acquired by distribution company Artisan Entertainment for $1.1 million who then spend a further $25 million on marketing and distribution, and went on to gross over $248 million worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent films ever made.

Along with its financial achievements the film also achieved critical acclaim with review aggregate sites such Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes boasting over 80% positive reviews and The Blair Witch Project still regularly featuring in lists and polls of the top 50 or top 100 scariest horror films. However, the film is not without its critics, most referring to the hand-held shaky-cam way the picture is filmed, with some audience members going as far as to claim that they experience motion sickness after viewing the film.

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So, whether you love it or hate it there is no denying that The Blair Witch Project was a landmark film in terms of modern horror cinema, demonstrating what it is possible to achieve with such a small (in Hollywood terms) budget, as well as becoming the archetypal found footage film. The film also showed that not only is a Hollywood size budget not needed to make successful films, but that studios and special effects are also unnecessary and that the average person can pick up a camera and go out and capture things truly terrifying in their own back yard so-to-say. And, what is more terrifying than finding monsters in your own back yard?

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I’m afraid to close my eyes, I’m afraid to open them.

Kat Lawson

Kat Lawson

Film & Media Studies graduate with a passion for horrors, psychological thrillers, European cinema, and pretty much anything a little bit weird. Lover of Rush, Cars and most films motor racing related. I want to star in my own Princess movie looking like Kat Dennings, with Princess Anastasia's wardrobe, Rapunzel's hair, Mulan's kick ass-ness and a sidekick trio of Pascal, Bartok and Mushu, and maybe Crikee Bug too. Prince Charming optional.
Kat Lawson

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