Most horror movies work by exploiting the human fear of the unknown. Despite gore, violence and jump scares being popular genre tropes, the most effective way of inducing terror is to keep the audience in the dark. The Blair Witch Project uses this very effectively, eschewing special effects and needlessly loud sound effects, and choosing to focus on creating a striking degree of realism.
The plot of the movie revolves around three students who go to Burkittsville, Maryland, for the purpose of creating a documentary about the Blair Witch fable. Upon arrival, they talk to various townspeople and get varied responses, and a chilling story of a mass murdering hermit. Having gleaned all this, they venture into the ‘The Black Hills’. As expected, things don’t quite go as planned as they get lost in the woods. Things begin happening that make the fable seem real. What raises the movie from the basic, cliched story is its pioneering use of the found footage sub-genre to evoke a sense of dread that does not quite arise in the case of traditional horror movies.
The directors, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, were inspired to make the movie as they found documentaries about supernatural phenomena scarier than regular horror movies. The movie, made in the style of a pseudo-documentary, uses the most rudimentary objects and noises found in the woods to effectively build unease and exploit our fear of the unknown. Never through the entire course of the film do we actually see the opposing force, be it a supernatural entity or something evil in the flesh. In spite of not knowing much about the characters, I rooted for them to escape. In spite of the monotonous visual of the woods throughout the film, it never becomes tiring and at once appears claustrophobic as well as wildly sprawling. When we hear unusual sounds at night, though we do not see the characters, we feel the same kind of trepidation they feel. A lot of this might not have been as evocative within the traditional workings of a film. The point of view, limited to only the three characters, makes the audience participate in the fear as well.
The film may not be without its drawbacks for fans of the genre. It is mostly the kind of film that is described as more ‘creepy’ than outright ‘scary’. Also, there is an obvious lack of character development. Yet, these are also the aspects that distinguished it from the rest of the genre. Leaving much to the imagination of the audience, the movie builds on the myth of the Blair Witch. Is it a supernatural entity? Is it a witch? Is it the work of a deranged psychopath? In a genre filled with many empty jump scares and gore, here is a film that manages to induce fear even with such a low production value.
The Blair Witch Project was edited to about eighty minutes from a raw footage captured by the actors themselves via two camcorders. In a polarising marketing strategy, the characters (whose names were the same as the actors that played them) were reported missing, something that was widely publicised by the internet when the movie was released. The dialogue was improvised by the actors, who also do a great job giving vérité, fly-on-the-wall performances. The climax, though confusing and disorienting, still works to leave the mystery surrounding the legend intact. In 2021, the movie still stands as a solid example not only of low budget filmmaking but also launching a genre unto itself.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.