The Blair Witch Project is one of the most iconic indie horror movies of all time, with a legion of production and marketing backstories that are almost more fondly remembered than the film itself. Write a list of the greatest or most important horror films ever produced and The Blair Witch Project has to be on there, if only for the pop culture iconography and influence. The thing is that back in the summer of 1999 when The Blair Witch Project came out, it wasn’t as universally beloved as we remember. Sure, it made an absurd sum of money and got great reviews, but most viewers claimed that they were underwhelmed by the experience. The most visceral reaction wasn’t terror, but motion sickness from all the shaky-cam and irritation towards the “whiny” characters. The movie ended up getting Razzie nominations and parodied. Its directors never helmed a high profile follow-up. Its actors mostly disappeared into obscurity.
A sequel was rushed out that was promptly loathed by all and the franchise disappeared as quickly as it burst out of Sundance and into box office glory. Looking back on the film now, it’s actually weird to think it became such a success in the first place. It’s almost a mumblecore horror film. The scares are subtle, mostly situational and psychological. The performances are incredibly low key (despite all the screaming). The aesthetic is 90s grunge, complete with flannel, smokes, dirty facial hair, and production values stitched together with duct tape. It’s an art house experiment that worked beyond what Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez ever could have imagined. They took risks grander than the Dogme 95 collective. They had no script. The actors had no idea what might happen to them. The performers shot the movie themselves as they slowly went insane and starved, while the filmmakers treated them to a private prank/spook show. The fear was real. It translated. It’s an experimental movie that somehow played as mainstream horror.
The reason The Blair Witch Project hit the zeitgeist so hard was due to timing, form, and marketing more than content. Found footage horror was ready to become mainstream now that most families had a personal video camera. Indie movies could be sold as low budget success stories after the Sundance revolution. The burgeoning internet culture was a perfect place to make claims that the film was real and have people believe the hype. Thanks to Scream horror was making a mainstream genre comeback after a fallow decade. Lightening struck. In the summer of 1999 The Blair Witch Project was something everyone wanted to talk about until M. Night Shyamalan delivered an iconic twist ending starring Bruce Willis. It was the hype, style, poster and behind-the-scenes story of The Blair Witch Project that became iconic in the summer of 1999. The movie itself was almost incidental. It’s become a classic, but only off-beat low-key horror loving weirdos actually appreciate it as a film.
“I actually really am sad, because our movie was kind of critically panned and got a D+ Cinema Score and people are still tweeting mean things at us. So we’re in the perfect headspace to do this commentary track. If you’re listening, I presume you’re not one of the people who hated this film, so we’ll try to address your interests as well.”
That’s a long winded introduction that’s been written (and hopefully read) to get to the actual content of this article, the recent threequel Blair Witch that was lambasted by critics last fall after being hyped up as a franchise’s second coming. That was a shame because as the recently released Blair Witch Blu-ray proves, the film was made with love and care and a passion for the original Blair Witch Project by super fans Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (the directing/writing team behind You’re Next, The Guest, and the V/H/S series). The duo adored the original movie for the unconventional storytelling techniques, unique mythology, and subtle scares that Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez and co. delivered in 1999. They made a sequel for fans who truly felt the same way. The trouble is that most people didn’t. Most folks don’t actually remember or adore The Blair Witch Project for the film it is. They like the phenomenon that it became and that was impossible to replicate.
The Blair Witch Blu-ray is a surprisingly lavish affair for a low budget horror flick made these days. Clearly everyone involved assumed they were making a hit, so a full two-hour long documentary was commissioned during production. It’s a fascinating doc filled with participants who couldn’t be happier to be working on the movie. They all speak of the original film with adoration and discuss how carefully they approached recreating and updating its charms. There are sections of Wingard and Barrett speaking about how they worked with the original creators to maintain consistency in the tone and mythology. The filmmakers discuss how they stuck with practical effects and showed all of the complex tricks they used for scares (which were embarrassingly dismissed as cheap CGI by critics and fans when it came out). They talk about how the supernatural shenanigans were deliberately left vague and open to interpretation like the original. We see the way the film was cleverly hyped up online as The Woods before being revealed as Blair Witch in a sneak attack Comic Con screening (the producers even went so far as to fill the theater with fake “The Woods” posters and banners for entrance that were replaced with Blair Witch materials during the screening to be seen by the audience only when they left). Everyone tried to make this a special horror movie event. Then it all went wrong.
The fake out marketing ensured that most viewers didn’t even know a new Blair Witch project was coming until opening weekend. The deliberately mysterious storytelling approach left audiences more confused and unsatisfied than titillated. Critics who were tired of found footage tropes didn’t appreciate all of the skill and craft that Wingard/Barrett put into their threequel. All of that excitement, love, and energy visible in the Blair Witch Blu-ray documentary went to waste. The movie didn’t light up the box office (even though the $5 million production hardly bombed). It was loathed by viewers who didn’t understand it because they’d forgotten what made The Blair Witch Project work and held to memories only of the hype and phenomenon.
Amusingly, the audio commentary from the Blair Witch Blu-ray was recorded after all of that, making it a hilariously bitter antidote to all the giddy enthusiasm of the disc’s doc. Ironically, that actually fits it well into this franchise as director Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) delivered one of the most beloved caustic and frustrated audio commentary tracks of all time for his underrated sequel Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (I swear to god it’s a troubled, yet freaky n’ fascinating flick even though I’m sure you’ll never believe me). That movie was plagued with production problems and Berlinger was more than happy to air his dirty laundry. It also suffered from identical backlash and outrage from critics and fans back in 2000 because most folks didn’t realize how well he toyed with and built upon Blair Witch mythology. They were mostly just confused as to why Berlinger didn’t make a found footage movie because everyone assumed that was the only thing that made The Blair Witch Project work.
But back to Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, and their delightfully bitter and jokey Blair Witch audio commentary track. From the word go the duo are open about what happened. They aren’t quite as defensive as Joe Berlinger was oh-so many moons ago, yet they are honest about the backlash to their movie in a way that you rarely ever hear in an audio commentary so recently after a film’s release. Shortly into the track Barrett admits, “I actually really am sad, because our movie was kind of critically panned and got a D+ Cinema Score and people are still tweeting mean things at us. So we’re in the perfect headspace to do this commentary track. If you’re listening, I presume you’re not one of the people who hated this film, so we’ll try to address your interests as well.” Yikes. You don’t hear that every day.
From there, the duo mix self-effacing humor and genuine passion to amusing and endlessly interesting effect. As always, they gleefully reveal all of the neuroses and mistakes that went into the Blair Witch production (the guys are up there for the best in the audio commentary game). They reveal all of the trouble they had mixing various cameras and style of footage, the ways in which they hoped to revive old techniques from the first movie while adding in their own. They talk about which scenes work and which didn’t. They clearly still love the movie and are somewhat shocked and perplexed by the reception it received. This was supposed to be a big mainstream outing from two indie weirdos known for their offbeat genre games. Instead, they made another cult movie while trying to sell out. Oh well, at least it was a bigger cult movie than they normally make.
As the commentary rattles on Wingard and Barrett only seem to grow more playful. They tease listeners about the strange mystery involving the monsters in the woods and bright lights, admitting they aren’t supposed to be the actual Blair Witch but something else that they intended to reveal in sequels but will now never tell a soul since no one appreciated the film they’ve made (it sounds more playful coming from the filmmakers and frankly, maybe they didn’t really have an official explanation for the mysterious events worth sharing just yet). The mixture of affection adoration and sarcastic piss-taking might be best summed up in a single sentence from Barrett when he says, “There is a wonderful primal human fear to your technology not working and being lost and hungry in the woods, which the first film captured beautifully and of course our film subsequently ruined.” The duo seem to be baffled yet amused by how the whole thing played out, finally closing the commentary by saying, “Do you have anything else to say or would you like to just sob softly for the rest of the credits?”
Ultimately, it’s an incredibly entertaining and informative track, delivered with honestly by two filmmakers licking their wounds after taking a beating that they didn’t deserve. It fits right in with Berlinger’s beloved Blair Witch 2 track and even the commentary from the original Blair Witch Project DVD where the filmmakers occasion joke around about the complaints they’ve heard from fans and critics. For whatever reason, the Blair Witch franchise might be the most awkwardly iconic in horror film history. Everyone knows the title. Everyone knows the story. Yet for some reason, few actually appreciate what makes Blair Witch unique and special. It’s a franchise for the nerdiest of the horror nerds and those folks are treated to defensive audio commentaries delivered by filmmakers just as baffled by all the hate continually levelled at this enduring franchise.
For whatever reason, the true “Curse Of The Blair Witch” might have been the massive success that met the film way, way back in 1999. The Blair Witch phenomenon created a beast bigger than the movie itself. Everyone has an opinion and rarely are they positive. Blair Witch should have been a cult oddity that deep cut horror fans passed around like a secret handshake. Instead it was an unrepeatably massive hit and every follow up seems to be doomed to fail. Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 dared to be drastically different to let the mythology stand on its own outside of all the groundbreaking found footage techniques (and with a dash of self-aware franchise deconstruction). It failed because “fans” thought it was too different. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett then went out of their way to avoid their usual self-conscious movie games to deliver a Blair Witch sequel rooted entirely in the style, form, and content that made the original special (and then pushed it to visceral levels never possible last time). It failed because “fans” thought it was too similar. You just can’t win with this series.
No one seems to know exactly what made The Blair Witch Project so popular or how to replicate it. That’s a shame, because there are now a trilogy of Blair Witch flicks as fascinating, fun, unique, experimental, and consistently entertaining as any horror franchise around. Only the hardcore Blair Witch disciples are destined to appreciate that fact and sadly there are far too few of them poking around, even on the Internet. Ah well, at least those who love the Blair Witch can enjoy audio commentary tracks featuring filmmakers as confused by why so few people understand and appreciate the movies as the passionate and small fanbase themselves. There’s something pretty special and unique about that. Sure, it wasn’t a franchise staple that anyone involved with these movies intended. Yet in the end that makes sense. No one ever predicted any of massive successes or failures of the Blair Witch franchise. It’s always a surprise and a crap shoot. Ah well, at least there’s a consistency to the strange, sordid, and misunderstood journey of the Blair Witch. Hopefully the franchise will continue, even if it’ll claim a few more talented casualties in the process.
In oh so many ways (literal and otherwise), Blair Witch is the horror film franchise defined by killing its makers.
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