The legacy of The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The legacy of The Blair Witch Project (1999)

When The Blair Witch Project hit cinemas in 1999, it did more than just terrify audiences; it revolutionised the horror genre and filmmaking as a whole. This film, with its raw, unpolished style, was the first to harness the power of the internet for marketing, pioneering an entirely new subgenre of horror in the process. The impact it had on the genre, and its success story, is one for the history books.


Small budget, massive impact

The Blair Witch Project began as a low-budget indie film, shot for around $35,000 by directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. The footage was eventually picked up by Artisan Entertainment for $1 million. By the time all expenses were tallied, the total cost was around $300,000. The film then went on to gross nearly $250 million, making it the most profitable independent movie of all time at that point.

In an era dominated by polished Hollywood productions, The Blair Witch Project was a breath of fresh air. It broke almost every rule in the book. The film had no traditional plot and lacked the stunning cinematography typical of cinema masterpieces. Instead, it relied on a raw, documentary-style approach that felt intensely real. 

The film's power lay in its authenticity. It felt real because it was, to a large extent, real. Much of the film was improvised. The directors provided a general outline of the story but left the specifics up to the actors, allowing for more spontaneous and genuine reactions.

Filming took place over eight gruelling days in the woods, with the actors given minimal direction via GPS coordinates and notes left in milk crates or marked with red flags. To heighten the sense of realism, the filmmakers reduced the actors' food rations, making them genuinely irritable and hungry. They even apparently had a safe word, "taco," to remind themselves it was just a movie when things became too intense. 

The state of 90s horror

The 1990s saw the horror genre in a state of flux. Post-80s slasher films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer were popular, but many critics were proclaiming the death of the horror movie. Towards the tail end of the 90s, the J-Horror boom was bringing fresh perspectives from Japan, infusing the genre with new life.

The Blair Witch Project stood out against this backdrop. It offered a jolt to the system, presenting a stark contrast to the polished slasher films and more of a tie-in to the more suspenseful, atmospheric, supernatural thrillers from Japan. Its stripped-down, realistic approach made it one of the most frightening films of its time, changing the genre forever.

The internet's role 

One of the most revolutionary aspects of The Blair Witch Project was its first-of-a-kind marketing campaign. While the internet was still in its infancy, the filmmakers created a clunky, quintessentially-90s website that delved into the film's backstory through fabricated police reports and other materials. This deep dive into the film's mythology added layers of believability, convincing audiences that the footage was in fact real.

When it premiered ar Sundance Film Festival, flyers were distributed declaring the actors missing, further blurring the lines between fiction and reality. The campaign was so effective that people sent condolences to the actors' families, believing them to be truly dead or missing. This level of immersive marketing had never been seen before and was key to the film's massive success.

Heather, Josh, and Mike

Despite the film's success, the actors weren't given the recognition or residuals they deserved. Joshua Leonard, one of the film's stars, famously remarked in a Guardian interview, "Sometimes I think Artisan would have been happier if we had actually been dead." Yikes. 

Heather, Josh, and Mike were specifically not invited to the Sundance premiere and were even listed as deceased on IMDb, showing the extreme lengths that Artisan went to maintain the film's realism.

The legacy and beyond

The enduring legacy of The Blair Witch Project continues to influence the horror genre, and Blumhouse Productions is currently planning a remake (BIG SIGH).

But on a positive note, this has spurred the original actors to push for the retroactive royalties they were never paid. Finger's crossed they get more than a gift basket, this time. 

Recommendations if you liked The Blair Witch

1. Host (2020): a modern horror movie set on Zoom during the lockdown, capturing a similar sense of contextual realism.

2. REC (2007): A Spanish found footage horror film written and directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza.

3. The Curse of the Blair Witch (TV Movie, 1999): a documentary available on Freevee all about the titular Blair Witch and its 'real' backstory.

Join us at Broadway Cinema on 7th July at 8pm, where we'll be introducing this horror masterpiece as part of their 1999 season of screenings.

Grab your tickets here! 

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