Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #42
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: July 30, 1999
Sub-Genre: Found Footage
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $248,639,099
Running Time: 79 minutes
Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
Producers: Robin Cowie & Gregg Hale
Screenplay: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez
Cinematography: Neal Fredericks
Score: Antonio Cora
Editing: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez
Studio: Haxan Films
Distributor: Artisan Entertainment
Stars: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard, Bob Griffin, Jim King, Sandra Sánchez, Ed Swanson, Patricia DeCou, Mark Mason, Jackie Hallex
Suggested Audio Candy
Antonio Cora “Credits Theme”
Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick are two very astute businessmen if you ask me. With the dawn of the new millennium fast approaching, they spotted a gap in the marketplace and took full advantage. I’m speaking of a filmmaking style that I have particularly mixed feelings about – found footage. Despite Paranormal Activity being commonly regarded as the flag-bearer for the P.O.V. documentary approach to horror, it was these two men who kickstarted the whole craze. If you wish to be pernickety then you could argue that Ruggero Deodato planted the primary seed two decades earlier with Cannibal Holocaust, while Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel would also point you toward their edgy 1993 noir Man Bites Dog as a leading light. However, it was Sánchez and Myrick that delivered this technique to the forefront for modern-day audiences.
The culmination of their fruits was one of the most commercially and critically successful horror films of the past twenty years. Let’s do the numbers shall we? Made for a measly $750k, The Blair Witch Project went on to make a staggering $250m at the box office which translates to well over 30,000 percent return on their initial investment. Not only did this make it one of the highest grossing movies of 1999, but also one of the most lucrative independent ventures of all time. Not bad for a first time effort right? Hands must have been rubbing together right across the globe as aspiring young hopefuls caught two nostrils full of their towering achievement.
It appears that all that is required is a hand-held camera, some buddies with a little too much free time on their hands and a basic premise. If only it were so easy. You see, as dross like Paranormal Entity and Episode 50 proved conclusively, it can all turn to shit in a heartbeat if your product is borderline unwatchable. Moreover, there’s another key ingredient to successfully nailing this particular sub-genre. Expertise is paramount to realizing the potential. Technical and written aptitude sure, but I’m talking more of proficiency when marketing your product, getting it out there, making folk sit up and smell your brand of coffee beans. The timing for Sánchez and Myrick couldn’t have been more immaculate, while the manner in which they ensured that The Blair Witch Project became the wide-reaching phenomenon it ultimately did is testament to their enterprise and business savvy.
With the Goliaths of Carpenter, Craven and Argento all treading water, these young Davids loaded up their slingshots (hand-held video cameras) with rubble (an amalgamation of Hi-8 video and black and white 16mm film) and proceeded to pelt everyone in their trajectory including the general public who swarmed en masse to gain insight into the parable of the Blair Witch. This is where their masterstroke was applied as they built the whole brand organically using the power of the worldwide web and word of mouth which spread like bird flu. By the time it was unveiled to a rabid public, The Blair Witch Project was on the edge of every cinema-goers lips.
Of course, one of the chief factors behind the expectant build-up was the cunningly plotted “is it real footage” debate. Sánchez and Myrick took full advantage of their mounting online congregation to promote their film; creating an unparalleled buzz in the process. Audiences simply weren’t primed for the shaky hand-held approach with many finding it disorienting to the point of inducing nausea but anyone with the mettle to make it through to its conclusion were treated to one of the most horrifying parting shots in cinematic history.
At no point in proceedings did it capitulate to the temptation of playing its hand, leaving onlookers as bewildered as its luckless protagonists, right up to the closing image. The true fear didn’t owe itself to visceral thrills, it was all in what you heard emanating from the darkness, while the witch herself was shrewdly never shown. What it achieved by choosing the less is more approach was deep-rooted cerebral terror of the highest order. Your mind was left to fill in the blanks and the film is all the more harrowing for it. There’s a total lack of any discernible grue (a bloody hand print and small array of giblets wrapped in cloth hardly register) but, on this occasion, we were grateful for the restraint.
I’m sure we all know the tale by now but, for anyone just released from cryogenic freezing or a fifteen year space expedition, here it is in a nutshell. Three bright-eyed and bushy-tailed film students head off to Burkittsville, Maryland in order to make a documentary about the Blair Witch legend. They travel into the deepest woods and soon learn that leaving this infernal place is not as easy as they had expected. Stuck in what appears to be some kind of paradox, the cracks start to show in their once tight friendship and they spend as much of their time bickering amongst themselves and swearing profusely as they do coming up with a solution. Meanwhile, something sinister lurks in the woods and it has no intention of pointing out the available exits either.
As last nerves fray and repeated incident casts a shadow over their very existence, one of their party vanishes into thin air. From hereon in, The Blair Witch Project has us right where it wants us, culminating in a final act that will likely provide your goosebumps with their own goosebumps. I’m going to level with you here, for six weeks after primary viewing, I couldn’t sleep on my back for fear of what lurked in the darkest recesses of my boudoir. I shit you not, this movie did a number on me that few could ever replicate. Of course, some will mock my admission and claim it to be not scary in the slightest, and that’s fine with me. Ultimately, it all boils down to your most innermost fears and, should they be tapped into, then this movie will leave you a blubbering mess come its abrupt and jarring conclusion.
Despite all three of its leads giving creditable accounts of themselves, their involvement with the project proved something of a poison chalice going forward. Heather Donahue picked up a most unprestigious Razzie award in 2000 for her role as Heather Donahue and subsequently struggled to find work, eventually quitting the business and winding up as a self-confessed pot-girl growing medical Marijuana. Indeed, employment became eerily scarce for round with only Joshua Leonard managing to break the hoodoo. I find this immensely saddening as they all played their part in creating the illusion of this being real footage; conveying the sheer torment of their hopeless efforts of exiting the dense woods which engulfed them.
Its sequel had the undesirable task of replicating its overwhelming accomplishment and was crucified for its crowd pleasing approach. Despite playing host to a handful of frosty set-pieces, it let itself down critically in other key areas. While I never shared the antipathy of its many detractors, mild disappointment would be a more than accurate term. This was a one-time deal and never again would the stars align quite as exquisitely as they did for Sánchez and Myrick in 1999. Right time, right place then. Right? Yes and no; the other factor responsible for its titanic return at the box office is straightforward – right product.
Unlike their actors, the duo have been afforded the chance to make the films they want to make since events in the Black Hills Forest. With a combined résumé which includes Altered, Believers, Solstice, The Seventh Moon, The Objective and Lovely Molly they have both gone onto moderate success. However, it’s this 79 minutes of sheer mental anguish though that will become their legacy.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 1/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Here’s the bad news Grueheads. A clutch of giblets wrapped in bloodied linen. That is all. I love a bit of splatter like the next man but, when a film can affect you deeply without the necessity for gushing grue, I’m all in well before the flop. I didn’t desire to see the witch in her full glory and, mercifully, my wish was granted. Neither was I particularly interested in learning her work ethic. The result of its anonymous stance is far more disparaging than any bloodbath could ever hope to provide. As for skin, I regret to inform you that there’s nothing to see here either. However, should you harbor a fetish for nostrils, then Donahue provides an intimate moment that will place you in nasal heaven.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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