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The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Three film students go missing after traveling into the woods of Maryland to make a documentary about the local Blair Witch legend leaving only their footage behind.

The Blair Witch Project is a 1999 American psychological horror film, written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. It was reconstructed from video and super 16mm footage shot by three film students who disappeared while hiking in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994. It is ostensibly a documentary about the legend of The Blair Witch, whose murderous activities stretch back as far as the 1700s.

Prior to watching this a couple of weeks ago, the last time I saw this film was when it first came out back in 1999. After viewing it, being about 17 years old and having to walk home after a midnight showing through some woods, I’ll admit it was a pretty scary time, and helped establish The Blair Witch in my mind at least as one of the scariest experiences I have ever had with any movie. Part of me wishes that was how I left it, as watching it now some 13 or so years later, it has tarnished my viewing really, as the ‘older me’ really doesn’t get what I was scared of. It makes it tricky to review, as I have two very conflicting thoughts, but in the interest of fairness I should offer them both.

First things first, I’ll start with the film’s plot. In October 1994, film students Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard set out to produce a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. They travel to Burkittsville, Maryland, formerly Blair, and interview locals about the legend of the Blair Witch. The locals tell them of Rustin Parr, a hermit who kidnapped seven children in the 1940s and brought them to his house in the woods, where he tortured and murdered them. Parr brought the children into his home’s basement in pairs, forcing the first child to face the corner and listen to their companion’s screams as he murdered the second child. Parr would then murder the first child. Eventually turning himself in to the police, Parr later pleaded insanity, saying that the spirit of Elly Kedward, a witch hanged in the 18th century, had been terrorizing him for some time and promised to leave him alone if he murdered the children.

On the second day, the students begin to explore the woods in north Burkittsville to look for evidence of the Blair Witch. Along the way, a fisherman warns them that the woods are haunted, and recalls a time that he had seen strange mist rising from the water. The students hike to Coffin Rock, where five men were found ritualistically murdered in the 19th century, and then camp for the night. The next day they move deeper into the woods, despite being uncertain of their exact location on the map. As time goes on, the trio continue to stay lost and wander round in circles. Creepy things also start to happen……..noises, backpacks getting rummaged through, crazy little stick figures, and soon enough one of the group goes missing. Believe it or not, there are people who haven’t seen The Blair Witch, so I will say that there may be some spoilers coming up. I will, though, for the benefit of my good friend Rae in particular, say that the only part of the movie to show any gore is when one of the group finds a bundle which contains teeth, blood and hair. That’s it! 🙂 The horror on show here is all psychological, and whilst I felt it worked all those years ago, it now seems quite dated and looks even more amateurish then I ever remembered.

The casting was great, and although the filmmakers tried to pass it off as a true story (more on that in a minute) they were actors. The actors were given no more than a 35-page outline of the mythology behind the plot before shooting began. All lines were improvised and nearly all the events in the film were unknown to the three actors beforehand, and were often on-camera surprises to them all. I quite like the way this was done, as the reactions did seem genuine and obviously this is the reason why.

The marketing for this film was superb. I have posted below some details taken from the films official website and the IMDB trivia section, as it goes to show just how inspired it was, and what $25 million on advertising can do.

An internet campaign had begun far in advance of the movies release. The filmmakers had created a website before filming had even begun, and this was before we all had the easy access we do now. It outlined the story of the Blair Witch, and was initially designed as a way to sell the concept to potential investors. As the general public of the internet began to discover the site, word spread. The studio picked up the ball on the internet promotion, and began the largest web hype campaign in history. The website was overhauled, and clips from the ‘found’ footage were put online. The campaign proliferated the idea that the documentary was real, that the filmmakers had gone missing in the woods, and the tapes had been found and edited down to tell the story of what happened to the three young people. The legend spread, and pirated copies of the movie were ‘leaked’ into the hands of internet movie writers. These online journalists helped to increase the furore by singing the praises of the ‘documentary’. The rich backstory of the legend of the Blair Witch, created by the filmmakers, was so well written and comprehensive that it served to make the idea that the events were true even more convincing.

By the time all this had gone on and before the movie even opened, fan sites had already been set up, and the movie had become one of the most highly anticipated releases of all time. The Blair Witch Project had become a cinematic event. In it’s first week, it grossed $28.5 million. By the end of it’s run, it had grossed nearly $250 million worldwide. This meant it had made the biggest box office gross to production cost in movie history. It retained this record for years, until another Blair Witch-style phenomenon, Paranormal Activity, took over that record.

I originally loved the ending, and thought it was one of the scariest and simplest endings I had ever witnessed. Whilst it is never really clarified, through the dialogue at the start of the film it is assumed that the house the group find at the end is that of Rustin Parr, the Burkittsville child murder who claimed to be under the influence of the Blair Witch. This “fact” is supported in both the film’s sequel, Book of Shadows, (which I saw and hated as soon as it came out, and have never seen since. The polar opposite of my feelings here could happen, maybe if I watch it again now I’ll love it?) and D.A. Stern’s companion book, The Blair Witch Dossier. I found the dossier fascinating, and according to the backstory outside of what is mentioned within the film, following the execution of Rustin Parr his house was burnt to the ground by irate Burkittsville citizens. That then begs the question of how the hell did the group find it near the end of the movie if it had been destroyed over fifty years earlier? One theory on the Blair Witch forums I browsed through is that Mike, Josh and Heather somehow got trapped or taken back in time by the Blair Witch which explains how the house appears to still exist and why they can’t get out of the woods. Apparent confirmation appears in Blair Witch Volume 1: Rustin Parr; in 1941, after the destruction of the Parr house, it is revealed that the Black Woods possesses supernatural powers that manages to distort time, briefly sending the main character back in time to the still standing Parr house, where ghostly visions of the group being killed in the basement are seen, suggesting that Parr killed them. It definitely adds more intrigue to it, and whilst the directors have never really confirmed anything, and were not involved with the sequel, they are planning on an official sequel which could well shed more light on the mystery.

Well, I have gone on long enough, and tried to offer some details on the film and books relating to it. Whatever your thoughts are on The Blair Witch, no one can deny the legacy it has had on films. It started the recent trend for the found footage genre, and it has been parodied/imiated/copied so many times, and I can’t imagine there are many people that haven’t seen the crying close up face of Heather at some point in their lives! Factoring in the time travel mythology, if I look at it that way the ending actually sounds great, but taken on face value from the movie alone, whilst the 17 year old me would score this around an 8/9 out of ten (because of the feelings it gave me at the time!) the older and maybe wiser me would score it considerably less. Therefore, an average final score of 6/10 will have to suffice.

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64 Comments

  1. Yeah, about the same rating I’d give it. Plus, it’s one of the prime examples of motion sickness inducing shaky-cam technique I’d rather not re-experience. Good look back at the film, Tyson.

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    • Yeah, I like the fact they shot it themselves, and were genuinely pissed off and frightened, but its not easy with all the shaky cam going on! Cheers buddy.

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  2. Following on in this same vein of moviemaking, are you familiar with a webseries on YouTube called “Marble Hornets”? It’s well worth a look!

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  3. Awesome review! I haven’t seen this since it came out either (and feel no need to revisit). I wasn’t a huge fan because the only part that frightened me was the last few seconds. I found it highly disappointing.

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    • Thanks Misty! I think my walk home in the woods elevated the tension and fear for me. Yeah, the end scene was very creepy, but not as much on my second visit.

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  4. theipc

     /  September 13, 2012

    The first time I saw this (in the theater) it freaked me out. When it came out on video I watched it again and it did nothing for me. I think, overall this is a good movie but like it’s grandchild Paranormal Activity, they’re both one trick ponies and don’t merit second viewings. Great write up, friend!

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    • Cheers Eric! I agree, some movies should only be seen once, it will only get worse with more views.

      (I really liked Paranormal Activity 3 and have seen that twice 🙂 I think its the best in the franchise).

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      • theipc

         /  September 13, 2012

        PA3 rocked everyone’s lame asses!! I LOVED IT!! That whole scene in the bathroom is F-ing EPIC!

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        • I know!! Although the clips and trailers showed some cool bathroom stuff that didnt make the movie. Shame. For me the ceiling fan camera was genius, and loved that scene with the ‘ghost’

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        • theipc

           /  September 13, 2012

          so did I!!

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        • Damn…….we agree on something…….doesn’t feel right…….REC 3 is a piece of crap man!!

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        • theipc

           /  September 13, 2012

          whatever!! Hey – did you ever catch Lovely Molly?

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        • Not yet, I wanted to get Blair Witch out the way first. Its making its way to the top of the pile though, soon will be watched. Looking forward to it though

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  5. This is where subjective taste really rules. I felt through the entire movie that I ought to like it. I wanted to like it . I just didn’t. I’m not a fan of “found footage” or amateur cinematography. I recognize this is a child of cinema verite — or at least part of the same tree — but I don’t like cinema verite either. Even giving the movie an A for creativity and a new approach, the jumpy camera made me seasick. I was ready to leave 10 minutes into the movie. love spooky movies, spooky books and spooky places. Adore them. My favorite all time ghost tale, both in literature and film is the original “The Haunting of Hill House” (Shirley Jackson) and the movie made from the book in black and white: “The Haunting” — not the dreadful remake.of the same name

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    • Nice comment. I can appreciate what they did all those years ago, and how different it was, but it hasn’t aged very well. Not scary in the slightest now. Haven’t heard of the book you mention, I will have to look it up.

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  6. Reblogged this on Serendipity and commented:
    I didn’t like the movie. But I really like the review. Knowledgeable, well-written, literate and thorough, whether you agree or not, he is worth reading.

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  7. I first saw this movie a couple years ago way after it’s release. I thought it was pretty good but kind of expected more for how much hype it did get, but that’s probably because I saw it in 2007. Great review! Didn’t know about any theories regarding the ending until now! Really interesting stuff :]

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    • Thanks! That was my dilemma, when I originally saw it in ’99 I remember how much I liked it and was creeped out by it. I can also appreciate the marketing tips and tricks, not something you could really do now, convince people the cast was really missing!

      As for the theories, I just thought someone would get a kick out of them like I did, so glad you liked them! Thanks again 🙂

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  8. I saw this on DVD a year or do after it came out and thought it was nicely creepy but not frightening as such. Found the Dossier much more disturbing and it’s the thing that has stayed with me

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    • Yeah the dossier was very interesting, I think there was a few and some video games but Im stuggling to track a lot of it down. Thanks for the comment 🙂

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  9. Great review man. This film scared me shitless at first but I haven’t seen it in years. Sorry to hear it’s not aged well.

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  10. Good review Tyson. This one still give me the creeps even if I have already seen it about 12 times now. It all seems so real to me and the way they allow the silence and imagination run wild in this film, makes it scarier than anything else. Of course it’s legacy has been sort of tarnished over the years due to the reemergence in the “found-footage” genre, but it’s always great to remember the one that started it all.

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    • Cheers buddy. The fact that the 3 actors were let loose in the woods, then having people in masks appear randomly to scare them and shake their tents etc all that stuff was real so the horror and fear they show is at least real.

      There have been a lot of poor found footage films since though…….

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  11. This was a brilliant concept at the time, and I’m sad to see that this “Found Footage” idea has spawned into its own genre with movies like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, CHRONICLE, CLOVERFIELD, and more coming out.

    BLAIR WITCH gave me a headache the first time around, but the effect was epic, before ‘epic’ was ‘epic.

    Great review, very informative and an awesome blast from the past!

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  12. great read here! You should give BOS a second chance: I hated it initially as well, and enjoyed it quite a bit more than I expected after checking it out some 7 or 8 years later. Great writeup!

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    • Cheers Matt!

      I actually read some forums about Book of Shadows, and some people seemed to prefer it so I will be watching it again. As I mentioned in my review, maybe after all this time I will actually enjoy it 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, appreciate it

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  13. Loved Blair Witch despite my post-ticket purchase wish for a diet coke and a serious dose of dramamine. Paranormal Activity was such a snoozer! Can’t believe it beat this one. Nevertheless nothing shall ever beat the best horror film of all time! That’s right – it can only be The Shining. Ah crazy Jack, how I heart thee… 😉

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    • 100% agree – best horror film of all time is The Shining. I’m dreading reviewing it, because how the hell do you do a film like that justice?

      I did quite like Paranormal Activity 🙂

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      • Sad choices Tyson on the PA, but I have to losve you for The Shining. You HAVE to drop me a line when you review that. You have skillz so I know you can pull it off. 😉 (P.S. That is intentionally dorky.) We had our kids saying redrum since they were teeny. Sadly most don’t get the awesomeness of the joke. Oh well. We thinks it’s awesome. (And of course, it is)

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        • I know, but as Ive said before I think PA3 is one of the best ever if not the best found footage film.

          I will let you know, hopefully soon, but The Shining will be tough. And thanks! Getting your kids saying that is awesome, thats the kind of trick I want to do when I have some. Girl twins would be ideal to dress up for Halloween!

          Still never seen Kings own version of The Shining, I will have to try see that at some point if only for comparisons sake.

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        • Twins – yes how fun would that be?? I actually haven’t seen PA3 so I will have to check it out. I find myself looking forward to it (but don’t tell anybody). 😉

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        • I wont 😉 Hope you like it!

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  14. I think the “not holding up” or “not being as scary on a rewatch” is germane to the horror genre. I dont think I’ve ever been as scared or more scared by a movie on a repeat viewing as I was on the first viewing, and that applies to the greatest horror films ever!

    I wouldn’t downgrade this, and I have rewatched… relatively recently. A couple years back. Obviously it was clever and innovative, so it needs to be respected in that regard. I still find the story and the events creepy and fascinating…

    I’ll be the stalwart amongst the downgraders… keep it a 8.5/9! Cmon Tyson!

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    • Haha!! I tried Fogs, but I found the story more fascinating after doing research and reading the dossier, and obviously the film didnt go too deep with any of that, merely suggestion. I do applaud the way it went about things all those years ago, and thats why the 17 year old me scored it high! I just felt watching back it didnt have the same effect.

      Definitely innovative though so I have huge respect for it, but I couldnt bump up my current score. 6 isnt too bad…….:) 8.5/9 would score it better than Martyrs and equal to I Saw The Devil, which it certainly is not in my eyes 🙂

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  15. I feel like I would have liked The Blair Witch Project if I had seen it when it first came out or had read up on all the backstory and websites, but a combination of age, the parodies, and having the ending spoiled pretty much ruined it for me. It just seemed dark with a bad camera. I was also disappointed by Book of Shadows, but for different reasons. All that being said, I’d probably still be on board if they came out with a sequel or a remake because I’m a sucker for horror films.

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    • That was why I loved it, because at the time there was literally nothing like it. Now we have been spoiled and it ruined my feelings towards it as I felt it doesnt quite hold up.

      Pretty sure the sequel is happening, they want to do it so fingers crossed it gets done and gets done right! Cheers for the comment Vincent.

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    • Yeah, it’s hard after the fact to really get the whole impact of this film and like Tyson mentions, the buzz that started online about this film way before it ever came out was a phenomenon unto itself, a marketing mastery that’s been copied, used, abused, and run into the ground. I think the only way going into this movie now is with a clear head or maybe a foggy head, actually, just try and live it second by second and turn out the lights!

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      • The last 2 films I remember really generating buzz quite like it were:

        Paranormal Activity which went the whole ‘demand it for your city’ route, and played the fact that Spielberg (I think!) watched it and refused to touch the disc as he believed it was haunted. This generated huge interest, scored loads at the box office and now we await part 4……

        Grave Encounters which had the opposite effect, when they claimed it was one of the most viewed trailers of all time with 20+ million views, yet that didnt translate into any money in the grand scheme of things.

        Really not sure how you can be original now with marketing, as Rory says it has all been done to death.

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  16. Victor De Leon

     /  September 14, 2012

    whoa. awesome review, I need to re-watch this movie asap. good job!

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  17. atothewr

     /  September 14, 2012

    I also wasn’t to big a fan of this one. I think I tried it twice and neither time did I really get freaked out. I remember thinking that tent scene was pretty intense, but I never understood why the ending bothered so many people. Good review.

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    • Thanks very much buddy.

      As I mentioned somewhere on here, the tent scene happened without the cast knowing, so they genuinely were freaked out, so thats quite a cool scene. The ending originally terrified me due to its simplicity, and what actually hit them and happened. Didnt bother me this time, but still a little creepy watching them run round the house hearing screams……

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  18. Great post, I always used to find the ending really unnerving.

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  19. Very interesting write-up. I’m one of, like, three people that haven’t see this one yet, believe it or not.

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    • Cheers Fernando. You may love it if you see it for the first time. It had a great effect on me first time round. You could do a lot worse 😉

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  20. Carly

     /  September 16, 2012

    I saw this on its original release and haven’t seen it since. Having to walk home on my own with my imagination was enough to freak me out. The only but that really freaked me out was the very ending. It’s just another reason for me not to want to camp lol x

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  21. Hey, thanks for dropping by Above The Line, appreciate your visit. This is a meaty review, lots of solid points, and I can totally feel you on your point about the young you and the older you in constant conflict. I mean there are just so many things that influence us and our reactions to movies. I feel that way all the time with movies and it’s odd, maybe it takes a few years to go by or the wind to change directions, or maybe it’s what I had for dinner, but I find myself often at polar extremes in this diabolical love/hate relationship with films. It’s like Children of Men, what do you think about that one? Well, when I first saw it I hated it. I mean I was clinch-fisted, gnawing the linings of my cheeks, pissed off with the whole shaky camera, blood on the lens, overacting lot of it and then a year went by, some things changed, others didn’t, and I sat down again and I was like what, was I crazy? It’s now my favorite Alfonso Cuarón film, right up there next to Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro and Fernando Vallejo – ok, maybe not Vallejo. OK, so that’s pretty far off topic. That being said, looking forward to reading more stuff. See ya around, cheers-L:K)(

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    • Thank you for stopping by and making that comment! Appreciate the effort you went to! Maybe I need to see Children of Men again, as your first time is how I feel, wasnt impressed at all, but maybe a couple of years have passed and its time for a revisit! Look forward to reading more of your stuff and seeing you around here!

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  22. Great review, although this isn’t my type of film. I dislike most found footage flicks with the exception of Chronicle.

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    • Thanks!

      I did like Chronicle actually. Very clever. Trouble with found footage is they all try and rip off Blair Witch, but at the time this was something of a pioneer and original 🙂

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  23. Excellent review. I loved this movie when it came out but it lost its punch the second time around. I’m linking this in a post that I am writing that will be published soon. Well done!

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