Perhaps the most polarizing film on Doctor Gash’s Top 10 Greatest Horror Movies…Ever! list is Number 9, The Blair Witch Project. I’ve heard many people talk about how they detested this film, that nothing happened, that it was a waste of time.
Not only is The Blair Witch Project undeserving of these criticisms, it was one of the most influential and profitable films of its time.
#9-The Blair Witch Project
“I’m afraid to close my eyes, I’m afraid to open them.”
Those that criticize the movie certainly missed the point of the effort, but regardless of any negativity, the box office take was staggering. Made on a budget that would barely cover a decent bachelor party in Vegas, Blair Witch ended up bringing in nearly $250,000,000. Not a bad return on your investment. In addition to the earnings, it solidified the found footage sub-genre of horror, and, most impressive of all, The Blair Witch Project was launched with a groundbreaking viral marketing campaign that was so effective it had many people thinking the whole thing was real.
Much like the Number 10 film on this list, Scream, The Blair Witch Project does not earn its spot here solely on the content of the film. Scream made the top 10 for being a great film at the perfect time. The Blair Witch Project makes the list primarily for the fact that its guerilla advertising campaign turned the world of film marketing completely upside down and reshaped the entire business of selling movies.
The brilliant marketing campaign, spearheaded by Artisan studio executive Steven Rothenberg, included a Sci-Fi (not yet Syfy) Network mockumentary about the missing filmmakers entitled “The Curse of the Blair Witch”. The program even included interviews with the “parents” of the missing kids, and it aired just before the release of the film. An internet buzz about the movie possibly being real police footage stoked The Blair Witch Project and had audiences completely intrigued from the start. Blair Witch used the internet as no one in Hollywood had before and by doing so left audiences ravenous to see the film. It’s a marketing strategy that is envied and copied relentlessly to this day.
And the trailblazing of The Blair Witch Project did not stop with its marketing campaign; it only began there. Creators/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez solidified an entire sub-genre of horror, the found footage style. This wasn’t the first film to use the idea of found footage as Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust used the same technique in 1980, and there were a few movies scattered between then and The Blair Witch Projectthat tried it, but it never really took off. After the success of Blair Witch we’ve seen an endless parade of movies that use this technique, and some do it well. Just a brief glance of the found footage film list reveals offerings such as the Paranormal Activity series, Cloverfield, The Last Exorcism, [REC] and [REC]2 and (here’s one for you) August Underground’s Mordum. An entirely new technique of filmmaking was embraced after Blair Witch which was not only fresh to audiences, but allowed films to be made much less expensively, giving more moviemakers a chance to bring their stories to life.
After the great marketing and creative presentation, what do we have? We have a film that is a study in tension. The best horror films give you a balance of tension and payoff. You have your build-up scenes and then your payoff scenes. A few minutes of walking through a strange dark house is paid off by a killer jumping from the closet and doing nasty things. Blair Witch was very adept at creating the tension, but they never gave the payoff…and it didn’t matter. The movie taught us that great horror wasn’t about seeing the gruesome monster or the knife plunging directly into the victim. It taught us that the journey was just as important as the money shot. If not more so. The Blair Witch Project was so tense with its creepy sounds and strange occurrences that you’re cringing in your seat waiting for something to happen during your first viewing. Well, spoiler alert, nothing really does happen, but does that mean you were never cringing? No sir. The Blair Witch Project scared us, it scared the crap out of us, but people rail against it because it never showed the antagonist. Would it have been scarier if we eventually saw what was making all the crazy noises and toying with the filmmakers? Not at all. No filmmaker can create something scarier than we can conjure in our own minds. Only we as individuals know our own deepest, darkest fears, and this is what we use to fill in the blanks for The Blair Witch Project.
Overall, the film is amazing. As our characters are lost in the woods, it has an incredibly claustrophobic feel even though they are in the wilderness and completely unencumbered. Stephen King has proven time and again that being trapped is the most horrific scenario one can find himself in. He’s used the idea repeatedly in books like Misery, Cujo and Gerald’s Game. And in reality, if a character isn’t trapped on some level, can you really have a horror story? Our three young filmmakers are trapped, unable to find their way back to the car. They walk south all day and end up right back where they started and hunker down for another night of strange noises and freaky happenings. Welcome to the world of the Blair Witch.
The Blair Witch Project is basically an improvised piece of work, adding to the authentic feel of it. Myrick and Sanchez really challenged the actors physically during filming (rationing food, keeping them in the elements) to enhance the tension. It worked. Their ad-libbed dialogue felt real. It all worked so perfectly.
Although it has its critics, The Blair Witch Project was groundbreaking not only for its unique filming style, but for its brilliant marketing campaign that has been, and will be, copied for years to come. The movie was masterful at building tension, so much so that it never had to give the money shot. Audiences were uncomfortable enough with the tortures of the woods that no further aggravation was required. However, when we finally get to the basement of Rustin Parr’s cabin and Mike is standing in the corner of the cellar, an iconic horror image is created. For ’90s horror, this final shot was your moon landing, your Zapruder film. It’s the culmination of a perfectly original horror experience. An amazing ending for a groundbreaking film.
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