In the October of 1994, three student filmmakers - Heather (Heather Donahue), Mike (Michael Williams) and Josh (Joshua Leonard) - were filming a documentary in and around Burkittsville, formerly Blair, in Maryland. They shot interviews with the locals about the subject of the film, the infamous Blair Witch, a legend of a supposed child killer who, in the nineteen forties, had lived in the forest nearby. Then they ventured into the woods to continue their story, and were never seen again. A year later, their footage was found...
If there was one film to see in 1999, one film that it was crucial to have an opinion on, it wasn't any of the blockbusters released that summer, no, it was The Blair Witch Project. Written and edited by the directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, it worked wonders on a tiny budget, and a clever advertising campaign ensured the internet community was buzzing with rumours - was it real? Was it a hoax? The website contained evidence that the whole thing had indeed occurred, and the cast members were mysteriously missing, and listed as such on the Internet Movie Database. This internet hype spilled over into the real world, and made the film one of the biggest hits, financially, of the year.
The approach was simplicity itself. The three stars were sent out into the woods with two cameras, one video and one black and white film, and with instructions from the directors, who set up the various obstacles in their path with the assistance of their crew. All the actors needed to do was keep filming. The home movie look, all shaky footage and real locations, conjured up an air of authenticity, as did the naturalistic playing of the cast. The interviews at the beginning contradicted each other as to who or what the Blair Witch was, and this haziness of the true facts, coupled with the way that you're never entirely sure what is going on, made the growing threat more tangible.
One of the most famous images of nineties cinema is a closeup of Donahue's face in the dark, lit by the camera bulb, eyes streaming and nose running, whispering that she's "so sorry". The reaction to this sums up how polarised the audience for the film were, not simply between those who believed it was true and those who didn't, but those who were intensely irritated by the whole affair and those who thought it was the scariest film they'd seen in years. As the three characters become lost in the woods, their relationship breaks down and they grow furious with one another, and this abrasive tone either set your nerves jangling or drove you up the wall.
The detractors would ask, where are they storing all the video cassettes they record on? Why don't they follow the river? Why don't they leave Heather behind? And it's true that the filmmakers' ingenuity doesn't quite carry the movie. Every so often, the cast will discover something spooky, like piles of rocks left outside their tent, or stick men hanging from the trees. There are voices outside the tent at night, and when one of the party disappears, a small bundle of something nasty is found the next day.
But this is all a bit samey: they argue (at least they can agree, "this is not funny"), they find something sinister, they get scared, swear, and so on. On the other hand, the ending, where they stumble across the abandoned house of the Blair Witch, is genuinely chilling and it's this unresolved jolt that gives the film its power. Perhaps more interesting as a phenomenon than a viewing experience, The Blair Witch Project should be congratulated for showing that you don't need a lot of money to create memorable cinema. Although that helps. Followed by a very poor, loosely connected sequel and a slightly better, decades later retread of the original material on a bigger budget.