The found footage horror genre is awash with mediocrity but some films stand out above all others. The Blair Witch Project is one of them and it remains the best of the lot…
Shot for less than $1 million and grossing nearly $250 million worldwide, the film, one of the most profitable ever released, made its fledgling creators Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick so much money they never had to work again. The found footage craze that appeared after the film can be attributed to The Blair Witch Project, which made the horror sub-genre tick like never before.
Unlike others, such as Alien Abduction, which arrived a year earlier, the performances were excellent, the photography from the actors was well orchestrated, and the production’s ultra low budget enhanced rather than detracted from the story. The film-makers also utilise the story’s setting – a dense Maryland wood – to perfectly convey a sense of detachment from civilisation and disorientating claustrophobia. Its intriguing set-up – a trio of student documentary makers head into the Burkittsville woods with a 16mm film camera and video camera in order to document the legend of the child-killing Blair Witch – is suitably macabre. Yet, it is the way this darkly mysterious beginning is conveyed to us, an ordinariness that importantly fails to prepare us for the ensuing horror. Through astute editing of the footage “found” by police after the group goes missing, the film brilliantly yet gently turns up the tension.
Sánchez and Myrick have to be applauded for their pacing of the drama, the cinema’s answer to the calm before the storm. We begin with a mystery that grabs the attention and build towards a devastatingly effective encounter with a malevolent unknown. The technique to convey this terror through the “footage” the trio capture is particularly important to the film’s overall impact. Not only does it have an inherent sense of authenticity (which isn’t necessarily a given with found footage as Cloverfield proved, but an indication of the film-makers intelligent use of the technique), it puts the audience within the action. Therefore, we feel the characters’ sense of alienation from the world as well as their increasing paranoia. As our point of view never wavers, we are part of their terror.
The Blair Witch Project is the best found footage film for a number of reasons, not least its effective use of the technique. It took its influences and perfected them, while its impressive marketing campaign drew upon the power of internet buzz well before it became an ingrained part of promotional budgets. It is arguably the most influential found footage film ever made and while Paranormal Activity trumped it for profitability (largely because of the proliferation of cheap digital technology that wasn’t available to Sánchez and Myrick in 1999), one of the most popular. While the sub-genre has produced more misses than hits, The Blair Witch Project is one of few found footage films that would find its way on to top horror movie lists regardless of the technique used to produce them. That’s why, perhaps more than anything, it is the best of the lot.
Written by Dan Stephens
…do you agree? Is The Blair Witch Project the best found footage horror film ever made?