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.
Just when you thought it was safe to go camping, comes "The Blair Witch Project", an independent horror flick financed with credit cards that features a mix of grainy film and video images. After becoming a fan favorite at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, distributor Artisan Entertainment snapped up the rights for $1 million and invested an additional $16 million on additional post-production, prints, and advertising. In its first week of wide release, the made-for-$25,000 wonder scared $30 million out of audiences, easily eclipsing the combined theatrical box office take of previous shoestring budget films, including "Clerks" ($3 million), "The Brothers McMullen" ($10 million) and "El Mariachi" ($1.7 million). Even more impressive was that "The Blair Witch Project" managed to achieve a record $25,885 per screen average in its first week of wide release, which bested the previous record of $21,822 that was set by "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" back in May of this year. So what is it about this no-budget film that is packing in audiences all across North America?
The premise of "The Blair Witch Project" is quite ingenious. Set up as faux documentary within a documentary, the film's opening pronouncement establishes that what the audience is about to see is original footage shot by three filmmakers who disappeared in 1994. Leading the trio of filmmakers is Heather (Heather Donahue), who is making a documentary on the 'Blair Witch', a mysterious figure that supposedly haunts the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland, and was credited with a series of child murders stretching back two hundred years. Assisting Heather are Mike (Michael Williams), the sound recorder, and Josh (Joshua Lenoard), the camera operator. Essentially, the film is composed of the group's 16mm footage, which was shot for the documentary, and Heather's High 8 video camera, with which she captures behind-the-scenes moments.
At first, the filmmakers seem optimistic about their endeavor-- we see them horsing around as they pack for their weekend camping trip, go shopping for marshamallows, and interview some locals on the legend of the Blair Witch. However, once the trio enters the woods, circumstances take a turn for the worse. In addition to becoming hopelessly lost, they hear strange noises from outside their tent in the middle of the night, and find evidence that someone is stalking them. Without any food, shelter, and any hope of finding their way out of the woods, the tension begins to build between the three filmmakers, and their group dynamic quickly deteriorates as rapidly as their individual mental states.
Like Hitchcock, we show you very little... we let the audience imagine stuff.
- Eduardo Sanchez, co-writer/director
Perhaps the main reason why audiences are responding so strongly to "The Blair Witch Project" is how it creates the sense of verisimilitude. Remember how watching television documentaries on ghosts, UFOs, or paranormal phenomenon used to scare the willies out of you when you were a kid? Well, this is the approach that has been taken with "The Blair Witch Project". Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick have done a very convincing job of making the footage look authentic, as though you were watching something on the Discovery Channel.
Without using any special effects, save for the occasional strange noise, the action we see on the screen is what you would expect from someone lugging around a video camera. Some of the time, the images are jarring, as the filmmakers are running from some unseen menace (which has caused motion sickness in more than one moviegoer), while other times, the screen is completely dark, and we can only go by what the filmmakers are saying to one another. Though the film never actually shows anything horrifying, it allows the audience to use their own imagination to fill in the blanks, which can be just as terrifying. In addition, the film also effectively taps into some subconscious fears by visibly demonstrating the sense of vulnerability when camping alone, illustrating the filmmakers' sense of helplessness when they are lost, and Heather's disquieting sense of failure when everything starts to go wrong. As a result, what you see in "The Blair Witch" leaves a lasting impression.
Shooting in the woods is something I never want to do again. It is really unpleasant.
- Heather Donahue, actress
Another contributing factor to the cinema verité effect of "The Blair Witch Project" is the fact that almost the entire film was shot without a script, leaving it to the actors to improvise their own dialogue. Working with only a thirty page outline, Sanchez and Myrick simply gave the actors two cameras and some notes, and sent them off hiking on their own through a Maryland state park. Along the predetermined path, the directors left baskets of food, along with reminders of what scenes to film at various points along their trek. Thus, most of the dialogue was uttered on the fly, which is why it sounds so natural-- the actors repeat themselves, stutter, and use profanity in a manner that is very familiar.
Improvisational Feature Film. Physically demanding shoot taking place in a wooded location. Actors must spend the night.
- original casting notice
To add a further element of realism, Sanchez and Myrick also woke up the actors in the middle of the night by making strange noises or sneaking around the campsite, with the emotional reactions of the actors being caught on tape. As such, in the scenes where the filmmakers are awoken by strange noises, we are actually seeing the actors express some genuine fear. Eventually, the actors found that the distinction between acting and their own lives began to blur, and the demanding shoot soon eventually took its toll with actors Donahue and Leonard at each other's throats.
Though all three actors deliver splendid performances, the highest honor would have to be given to Heather Donahue. Donahue carries the film with her sympathetic portrayal as the embattled leader of the group, who begins the weekend shoot brimming with confidence and enthusiasm, only to see her succumb to the an overwhelming sense of helplessness when her project begins to fall apart. I wouldn't be surprised to see her moving on to bigger and better acting assignments in the future.
People feel they're basically seeing a snuff film.
- Amir Malin, president of Artisan Entertainment
And if the documentary-within-a-documentary approach is not enough to convince you, Artisan Entertainment has crafted a clever marketing campaign has helped to further perpetuate the illusion that the events portrayed in the film actually happened. The official web site, which has drawn up to 11 million hits per week, allows visitors to read the 'official case file', examine 'evidence' (such as police photos of the 'crime scene'), and view media interviews with the relatives of the missing filmmakers. In addition, some additional hype was created by a cable television special that fueled interest in the film à la the old paranormal investigation series "In Search Of". And coming soon is the novelization of the film that reads more like a non-fiction 'true crime' account of the investigation into the disappearance of the filmmakers.
I have to give credit to the filmmakers. They did a very good job I understand.
- Joyce Brown, mayor of Burkittsville
Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of speculation as to whether or not the events in the film really happened. Not too long ago, a New York private investigator publicly offered to reopen the case-- that is, until someone informed him that none of it was real. And since the airing of the cable television special, the town of Burkittsville, MD (population 200), has been inundated by gawkers and the media, in search of any evidence to the veracity of the Blair Witch. Even in the theater where I saw the film, a couple sitting in front of me felt compelled to ask if it really happened.
At first, the 'home video' look of "The Blair Witch Project" may seem unsettling, but as you become intrigued by the 'mythology' of the Blair Witch and become familiar with the trio of characters, it becomes very easy to be caught up in the ever-escalating tension of the story. Unreal or not, "The Blair Witch Project" is an experience not to be missed.