Back in '99, the horror scene was in complete turmoil. From out of nowhere this small, insignificant little film had surfaced and freaked out cinema goers all over the world. The hype back then was tremendous and everyone with only the slightest interest in horror cinema flocked to his local cinema to see what the fuzz was about. With no budget to speak of and with no prior experience, Myrick and Sanchez showed the big studios that a film didn't have to cost a lot of money to make a lot of money. Enter The Blair Witch Project, still one of the scariest films to date.
Call it found footage, call it faux documentary, call it whatever. The Blair Witch Project started an entirely new niche in horror cinema, although with a few years delay. It wasn't until films like [Rec] and Cloverfield built upon the foundation of The Blair Witch Project that others dared to follow in its footsteps. And while The Blair Witch wasn't quite the first film to pull off this found footage trick (remember Cannibal Holocaust and C'est Arrivé Près De Chez), the presentation of the film made all the difference.
It didn't just pioneer a new style of film making though, it also marked one of the first times a film (ab)used the internet to successfully kickstart the hype machine. Not only was the documentary itself fake, many of the sites referencing the so-called "actual" Blair Witch legend were meticulously constructed to cloud the footage in a veil of mystery, prompting many to believe that it was in fact real found footage they were looking at. An ingenious trick that would prove hard to repeat as the internet matured (and become more cynical).
The setup is pretty simple (becoming a template for many of its copycats). It all starts with a group of young kids getting together to make a documentary. All packed and ready they set out to investigate some kind of weird tale, legend or phenomenon. In this case, the legend of the Blair Witch. After they conduct some initial interviews they start their hike into the woods, unaware of the dangers that lie before them. If you think you've heard this before, it's because almost every single film in this particular niche starts out this way.
The camera work was probably the film's most polarizing feature. It threw all conventional rules overboard, instead aiming to mimic the typical home video camera work as closely as possible. That means the cinematography (in the traditional sense of the word) is extremely poor, the image quality itself isn't much better. At the same time, this very vague and hectic window into the film's universe is what makes it so frightening. Not only are you right there with the characters, you only get a very limited view of what exactly is going on. Fifteen years later this style of filming is still not completely accepted, but it has garnered a following large enough to sustain the niche.
The soundtrack is pretty much non-existent. Since we are supposed to be looking at found footage material, there simply wasn't any room for a traditional score. What you get is dialogues and some ambient sounds. Still, those ambient sounds make for some very tense moments, especially during the scenes at night. Just the sound of a few well-timed distant screams and crackling branches is all this movie needs to drive up the tension.
The actors are more than adequate, though as with the soundtrack, "traditional" acting simply wasn't going to cut it here. We're supposed to be looking at real people (not even movie-real, but real-real), so you don't get the typical actor vibe from the main trio. You could probably link it to the mumblecore movement, though the context of this film is pretty different of course. But the three do a pretty great job, especially when things get more tense their actions are convincing and believable.
The Blair Witch Project divided film audiences into two camps. Some still believe that faux documentaries like this are a cheap and easy way for talentless hacks to earn a quick buck, others recognize the difficulties in making a film like this work. Whatever side you're on though, the effect these films have on at least a portion of its audience is undeniable. Personally I'm a fan and while a lot of bad films have passed by since the initial release of The Blair Witch Project, I consider it a worthwhile trend that brought a lot of great films with it.
The past 7 to 8 years the horror scene has been swamped with found footage films. It's hard to imagine you've seen a chunk of them without ever taking the time to watch The Blair Witch Project, it's even harder to weigh its impact once you are aware of the genre's trademarks. Watching it again though, I can only conclude the film has lost little of its initial shine. The build-up remains strong, the scares are effective and it remains one of the better films in the genre. It may not be as fancy or orchestrated as some of the newer specimen, but it actually uses that defect to its advantage. A must see if you're into horror cinema.