When it was released in 1999, The Blair Witch Project arrived as redemptive salvation for horror fans, a welcome antidote to the dross that had been served up that decade, and a truly terrifying spectacle that not only harnessed the nascent power of the internet but re-drew the boundaries of what the horror genre could contribute to cinema.
But for a few lasting contributions made to the genre – Candyman (1992), Scream (1996) and The Sixth Sense (1999) – the 90s will not live long in the memories of horrorphiles. In between endless re-hashings of the Freddy Krueger universe (Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare 1992, Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday 1993) they had to endure Stephen King’s crack-pot debut screenplay Shapeshifters (1992), and several appalling sequels, most notably Jan De Bont’s limp take on Robert Wise’s 1963 classic, The Haunting.
As part of the BFI’s two month exploration of 90s film and television, The Blair Witch Project will return to the big screen with an introduction by host and producer of the hugely successful podcast, The Evolution of Horror, Mike Muncer. In our conversation below, Muncer details the impact and legacy of this low-budget masterpiece, from its seminal use of found-footage, to its innovative promotion tactics and the DIY ethos it engendered among future filmmakers – we dissect one of the most important contributions to horror in the last twenty years.
Finn Blythe: When it came out in 1999, what made The Blair Witch Project so radically different from anything that preceded it?
Mike Muncer: Generally the 90s are not considered the best decade for horror. We hadn’t had anything really scary in a long time and were just looking for a new spin on the horror film, something that breathed fresh life into it. The Blair Witch Project did that. It was a perfect storm of being released exactly around the time the internet was beginning to boom, combined with this idea of ‘found-footage’ – that what you’re seeing is raw video material that somebody has left, and you’re watching it back un-edited.
It had been done before but in very niche movies like Cannibal Holocaust, which came out in the 80s but was a very grindhouse, underground movie. Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick [The Blair Witch Project directors] also used the internet to their advantage. They started a website and essentially launched a campaign to find these three missing film students which looked real, and they’d given the Blair Witch this mythological backstory so people went to the movie knowing the background information, thinking what they were about to see was real.
FB: So almost the first viral film hype. What can you tell me about the way it was shot?
MM: The film is unfairly accused of not having particularly good acting. I think a lot of people find the actors quite annoying, but it’s because they’re very real, reacting to things the way real people would which isn’t how Hollywood actors would react. They were sent to the woods, told to bring their camera and film everything. The filmmakers would mess with them, coming to their tents in the night and making noises or leaving piles of sticks, so these actors were genuinely reacting to what was happening. There’s something jarring about the way they all talk too, speaking over each other – again, there’s nothing polished, it just feels like what real people would do in that situation.
“The filmmakers would mess with them, coming to their tents in the night and making noises or leaving piles of sticks, so these actors were genuinely reacting to what was happening.”
FB: As you say, the film is distinctly unpolished but to generate that raw look and make it seem like the lost footage of amateur filmmakers, ironically requires a lot of work.
MM: Definitely. What emphasises that is the sheer amount of found-footage movies that have since been made and are comparatively rubbish. Paranormal Activity was huge, and there was a really good zombie-outbreak one called REC that came from Spain, but most of the found footage movies are terrible because I think a lot of film makers think it’s a cheap, easy way to make a scary film because you just run around with a camera in the woods. The Blair Witch Project really takes its time, building up these characters before it starts hitting you with the scary stuff. So they thought very carefully, not just about how it looks but how it’s structured, the narrative, the pacing.
FB: Do you have a favourite moment, scene or shot?
MM: There are so many moments but I guess it’s got to be the ending, the last sort of ten minutes of the film where the tension has been slowly ramping up over the first eighty minutes of the movie, to the point where you might not even realise how invested you are. By the time they find a house, they’ve almost accepted they’re going to die. Again, it’s so controlled, they show us just enough. The interior of the house, with these children’s hand-prints and the way it’s shot with two cameras is very disorientating, one cheaper, colour video camera they use for the behind-the-scenes and then the proper 16mm black-and-white film camera.
“There’s something jarring about the way they all talk too, speaking over each other – again, there’s nothing polished, it just feels like what real people would do in that situation.”
Then you get those incredible last few minutes where she walks down into the basement and it’s a very fleeting shot, when she sees her friend stood in the corner. There’s a very brief mention in the first act of the film, where one person tells a story about the Blair Witch putting one person in the corner and killing the other and then killing the person in the corner. They say it in a very throwaway manner, you could easily miss it, so it’s very confident that it relies on you remembering that story followed by that two-second shot of the person in the corner, followed by the camera dropping and the credits rolling. It’s amazing they managed to make a film so terrifying by showing us that little.