Three film students travel to Maryland to make a student film about a local urban legend... The Blair Witch. The three went into the woods on a two day hike to find the Blair Witch, and never came back. One year later, the students film and video was found in the woods. The footage was compiled and made into a movie. The Blair Witch Project.
By the time The Blair Witch Project opened in Britain on October 22, 1999 there can hardly have been a film fan who was unaware of the extremely strange story behind its making.
Few are those who hadn't heard about the pair of Florida film school graduates who had persuaded three twentysomething actors to spend a week videoing themselves in the Maryland woods. Of how the two directors had repeatedly terrified the beleaguered trio in a successful attempt to capture real fear on their faces. And of how they expertly manipulated the internet to make the result one of the most successful horror flicks of all time. Indeed, when the film finally hit British screens several months after its American opening it could be argued that audiences here knew far more about the film than was good for them, and certainly anyone who hasn't seen it already would be better off rectifying that egregious situation before reading any further.
For The Blair Witch Project is one of those movies where ignorance is bliss — or, to be more accurate, terror. Ostensibly the last testament of a film crew who, as the opening credits inform us, disappeared off the face of the planet, the movie resembles a genuine documentary so closely it makes the likes of This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) look like David Lean epics. Certainly it fooled many of those American college students who were shown the film prior to its release — the ruse in this case was aided by a profusion of apparently genuine "Missing" posters which sought information relating to the whereabouts of the supposedly long-lost youngsters.
Such screenings would help generate the positive word-of-mouth that real-life directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez knew was absolutely essential if their film was going to be a success. Certainly, its air of mystery was by far the film's strongest selling point — featuring, as it did, little in the way of stars, special effects or even competent camera work. Nor could the directors claim much of a cinematic track record. Indeed, their most high profile previous experience had been making videos to be shown inside Planet Hollywood restaurants. But the pair shared a love of 70s
horror flicks and decided to pool their meagre resources for a film that would attempt to recapture the visceral terror that they felt on first viewing William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) or Larry Cohen's It's Alive (1974).
"We were after complete realism," recalls co-director Sanchez. "We knew that if we did it with a crew it wouldn't work. From the beginning we wanted to do Blair Witch as an improvised film. We were basically going to leave the actors for certain amounts of time on their own, tell them what was happening and let them shoot it for a couple of hours at a time. Then we'd come back, review the footage and go on to the next scene."
What really put the project on a one-way track to Horrorsville, however, was the input of Gregg Hale — a onetime Special Forces sergeant who had previously worked with the duo on a portmanteau horror film called Black Chapters. "Gregg said, 'When I was in Special Forces training they put us through this POW camp scenario'" explains Sanchez. '"And after about two or three days of being in that camp surrounded by these guys hitting you, and yelling at you in Russian, and not letting you sleep, and hosing you down with water, you start to believe that it's really happening.' He said, 'You know, we could do this to the actors.' Dan and I were like, Yeah!"
So it was that a group of unsuspecting, unknown actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard found themselves pretending to make a film about an ancient woods-dwelling witch while being genuinely terrified as the film crew deposited ominous-looking stick men in their path or played them tapes of children crying in the middle of the night. "We were the Blair Witch," says Myrick. "We had to get up at three in the morning and run around their tent. We had to hike through the woods to drop off directing notes. Then we'd review Heather's video tapes at the end of the day to see how it was reading on camera."
The end product, which was painstakingly hyped by both the distributors Artisan and the filmmakers' own website, would prove to be a genuinely unnerving cinematic experience. The film also produced 1999's most enduring image — the close-up of a wigged-out Donahue talking to her own camera as (and there's really no point in beating around the bush here) liquid snot poured out of her nose. "That was my own snot," laughs Donahue. "I've never done stunt snot in my life. I'm anti-glycerin."
Notorious inventiveness - both in its creation and marketing - shouldn't cloud The Blair Witch Project's other, more traditional horror qualities. It's a fright-fest.