The Blair Witch Project (1999)
October 22, 2014 9:27 PM - Subscribe

THE SPIRIT OF 1999 VIEWING CLUB - Three young filmmakers go into the woods to shoot a documentary about the legend of a witch that haunts rural Maryland.

DID EBERT LIKE IT? "... an extraordinarily effective horror film."

What about Maryann Johanson? "I can absolutely guarantee you that at this very moment, there are at least ten pitches being hurled at Hollywood execs that start out: “Okay, it’s a mock documentary. There’s these kids, see…

Was it all just about the greatest viral marketing campaign before that was a thing?

The suburb Horror podcast We Have Such Films To Show You by Mefi's own cortex and griphus has some thoughts about it.

There are too many parodies to list. Epidemic that year.

THE BEST - Heather's slow realization she doomed them all.

THE WORST: Lots of screaming in the woods that doesn't hold up the second time.
posted by The Whelk (33 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I only saw this once, and it was on a very hung-over Saturday, in theatres, which on reflection may have not been optimal viewing conditions. I did sit all the way through, which probably says something about my fortitude as a younger man.

Kind of an amazing movie for mostly meta-textual reasons. I remember watching "documentary" Quicktime trailers off the '99 internet with horrible compression that took a dog's age to download and creeped me the fuck out. I'm not sure anyone could ever hit that sweet spot of marketing, mystery and gonzo film-making again.
posted by figurant at 11:06 PM on October 22, 2014

I saw this in a packed theater. Towards the end, in one of those tense scenes where you could have heard a pin drop, someone a few rows behind me shouted "BOO!"

Then everyone laughed and the mood was ruined. Fucker.
posted by johnofjack at 4:34 AM on October 23, 2014

I have so much to say about this movie.

But the most entertaining one is that cortex and I simultaneously realized that the documentary they were making was awful.

I only saw this once, and it was on a very hung-over Saturday, in theatres, which on reflection may have not been optimal viewing conditions.

I saw it in the woodsy Maryland suburbs at night and my cousin and I had to drive through some pitch-black roads to get back to his parents' place. Didn't sleep much that night.
posted by griphus at 6:30 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I saw it twice. First time was in a crowded downtown DC theater with an almost entirely black audience that was not especially involved in fearing for a bunch of dumbass white kids with too much time on their hands that didn't know any better than to wander out in the woods and fuck with ghosts. (That was my first realization that black audiences really weren't well served by Hollywood. One of the trailers was for Luc Besson's The Messenger, and about halfway through it some woman indignantly shouted "I don't care about no Joan of Arc!" and that kind of set the tone for the show.) They were loud and dismissive and while I went in with really high expectations based on what I'd heard about it, the experience was not frightening at all.

Thought, well, maybe that was just not the place to see it. Saw it in a nearly empty theater the next time. Quiet, dark, all alone. Maybe the opportunity was lost by that point but I still found it utterly boring.

I really wanted to like this movie, but I just can't.
posted by Naberius at 6:40 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

The first time I saw this, I must've been around griphus' age so a youngish teenager - I hadn't heard a thing about it except those really small, grainy QuickTime "trailers" for it and it was not obvious it was 100% fiction to me yet - and when you're in the theatre and you've never seen a found footage movie before ( because it wasn't a thing yet) and you have no idea what's going on and the screen goes black for a while and all you hear is HORRIBLE BREATHING NOISES - then yes you leave the theatr pretty freaking rattled.

But you can only fire that gun once, and it was such a comflux of lucky zeitgiesty moments - the expectation of horror audiences, retro-scripting, "the reality genre", the first popular found-footage movie, viral online marketing before that was a thing ( Pre ARG even), the use of grainy film stock and handheld to connote real ness and documentary - pretty much the instant it came out it was dated and then it became such a Thing and parody target that it all got very old, very fast and just drained any shock or horror from it completely. You can look at it academically, as the flash point for all these things that would just become utterly mainstream ten years later - but it doesn't really work as a movie anymore. If only cause it looks ...silly on a small TV set.

I almost feel this way about the first Halloween movie, although that has more rewatch value both as a movie and as a cultural object.

My SO, who had never seen it, called "a bunch of gimmicky idiots screaming in the woods." soooooo....
posted by The Whelk at 7:43 AM on October 23, 2014

Also, yes the only bit of "story" that never fails to delight is how terrible Heather is at everything she sets out to do.
posted by The Whelk at 7:50 AM on October 23, 2014

I saw a promo on Discovery or the History channel or something before the movie came out. It framed it as a real piece of found footage, with snippets from the movie and an announcer giving the context. That legitimately creeped me out. The promo was totally all like "holy shit this really happened and no one can explain it" and it was freaky.

So I went to see the movie and instantly realized it was a fiction and the people in it were bad actors playing really stupid people. Major let down. I could only laugh when they kept following the compass and it kept leading them in a circle. I kept thinking "just follow a streambed dumbasses."
posted by natteringnabob at 8:05 AM on October 23, 2014

When this movie was released, I went to a midnight showing of it. I was really excited and honestly, not at all let down.

Of course, after my date dropped me off back at my old drafty apartment, I could not sleep I was so spooked by the film. He refused to come over to comfort me so I ended up calling a buddy of mine who was fast asleep. He came over (no funny stuff) and watched Sifl & Olly episodes with me until the sun came up. I have never forgotten that act of kindness. (For me, the reason why the film was so effective was because I could imagine all the horrible stuff we couldn't see but heard.)
posted by Kitteh at 8:14 AM on October 23, 2014

IMDb confirms my memory of this movie circulating on my college campus:
This film was one of the most pirated films of 1999 because of limited release due to its independent status. The pirated version was an unfinished leaked work-print with several plot holes and most of the initial interviews missing leading to audience confusion at final scene of the film.
I was a Freshman in college, and I remember my room-mate watching it on his computer, the year Napster was a hit. My roomie was watching it with a friend of his, and I caught some of it over their shoulders. They were both pretty sold that this was a real thing, but I was skeptical and mostly ignored it. I want to say they had the leaked version in the Fall or Winter of 1998, but it may have been Spring of 1999. The film was first showed at Sundance Film Fest in 1998, so it was definitely building word-of-mouth interest ahead of the official July 30, 1999 theatrical date.

I think I finally saw it a few year later, after the hype had washed over, and I thought it was decently suspenseful, but nothing great. As Kitteh said, it's what you didn't see that made it so effective.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:50 AM on October 23, 2014

I had the misfortune to have seen this quite awhile after the hype and details of the production had been revealed, so some of the effect was ruined for me. That said, it's not a bad little movie. It certainly has its heart in the right place. If you'd never heard anything about it, I think it would be a fairly entertaining and effective film.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:58 AM on October 23, 2014

I worked at the Uptown Theater when this came out.


Definitely one of the top five worst work experiences of my adult life.

Also, the shakycam, which doesn't usually bother me, made me horribly nauseous. Judging by the amount of vomit we had to clean up, I was not alone. Lots of pukers.
posted by louche mustachio at 10:05 AM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I remember seeing this in theaters in college and being SO freaked out--partially b/c of all the realistic websites that they set up before it came out, so I really wasn't sure if the Blair Witch was actually real, I think that was one of the first times someone used the web like that--that my boyfriend had to take me to the pet store after to pet kittens until I calmed down.
posted by leesh at 10:37 AM on October 23, 2014

The slow breakdown of Heather's leadership is good stuff. There's some pretty good acting and pacing in that part of it, like where one of the dudes displays the perfect shit-eating grin of someone who is mentally done with someone else. The characters and their relationships seem real, and I think that is under-appreciated.

So I think the buildup part is okay, but then there's this long stretch where things have got pretty dysfunctional, but there's not really more revealing in store, and that part stretches out a bit long and maybe drops people out of the movie.

I could only laugh when they kept following the compass and it kept leading them in a circle. I kept thinking "just follow a streambed dumbasses."

I wondered if they were hinting it was a curse working on them. Maybe it was their ability to read the compass that was at fault, and if they'd tried something else they would have fucked that up too.
posted by fleacircus at 10:55 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well yeah it's clearly a HAUNTED WOOD and no amount of tracking will get them out it's just right in the biiiig part in the middle where everyone's frustrated but nothing is escalating to changing much.
posted by The Whelk at 11:00 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes it needed something more concrete in there instead of just random supernatural fuckery. Or it just needed to be shorter.
posted by fleacircus at 11:20 AM on October 23, 2014

I don't like horror movies in general, and I was really curious about this one in college...but it was a horror movie, and I don't enjoy being scared, and I whined and debated about going for-EVER. I finally caved and went with the rest of my friends and....

Not only was I NOT scared, I thought it should be renamed "The Fucking Blair Witch Comedy." I laughed and laughed so hard!
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:22 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I saw this in the theater when it came out. Didn't know much about it other than the found footage aspect of it and that it was supposed to be really scary. The only genuinely scary part of the movie, for me, was the bit in the basement at the end, when you see the person facing into the corner and then the camera drops and goes dead.
posted by MsVader at 12:28 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I saw it fairly long after the fact (I don't know -- maybe late in 1999?) so I kind of knew what happened. I enjoyed it and still found the end scary. It doesn't completely work, but I admire it.

I do know people who believed it to be real. I remember whole online promotion campaign and how they were selling it as a true "found footage" documentary.

I even drove through Burkittsville, Md., once with friends (maybe in 2000?). They had taken the signs down because they were sick of Blair Witch fans coming through.

I hadn't realized there were some Blair Witch comics until last night. It actually has a pretty solid lineup of creators.
posted by darksong at 4:30 PM on October 23, 2014

Best seen in 1999 before anyone has told you anything about it AT ALL.
posted by Artw at 4:47 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I really loved all the hype surrounding the film. It was the first use of the internet as immersive marketing that I had experienced. Okay, the movie itself doesn't hold up all that well but the buildup was fantastic. It still has a warm place in my heart.

Agree that the documentary they were making would have been dire if actually completed.
posted by orrnyereg at 4:52 PM on October 23, 2014

A possible inspiration.
posted by Artw at 5:07 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm amazed that Owl Goth from Blair Witch 2 hasn't become an animated .gif or tumblr meme.
posted by Artw at 5:09 PM on October 23, 2014

I saw the movie on DVD (or maybe even on video) several years after it came out. It wasn't the best choice for that evening because I had been on a bus that got into an accident that day. I wasn't hurt but I was thrown from my seat. I thought it quite a decent horror movie considering it looked like it had been made with pocket change and no special effects, and I found it scary. I regretted watching it on that particular night though, as I had a hard time sleeping. I wasn't frightened really, but I think the bus accident shook me up more than I realized and the movie added to that unsettled feeling.
posted by orange swan at 5:45 PM on October 23, 2014

The summer this came out, I was working as a camp counselor at an overnight YMCA camp. Me and some other counselors had a night off and we'd heard this movie was scary, so we went. We weren't that scared, or that impressed, coming out of the theater - "Ehh, it was alright I guess," was the general consensus. I remember it dragged a lot in the middle, a longish stretch of irritated people swearing at each other irritably and not much else. The rest didn't really sink in until several hours later that night when I got back to the camp and had to fall asleep in a creaky little cabin with canvas flaps for doors and windows, way out in the woods. Then, it was scary.
posted by mstokes650 at 6:02 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

My wife has the Blair Witch story-she saw it in a packed theatre, and evidently it was some guy's day to have the kid, because he brought his three-year old child to the film. She immediately started howling at the scary film from the first scene, until a women stood up and bellowed "YOU TAKE THAT CHILD OUT OF THE THEATRE RIGHT NOW YOU HORRIBLE EXCUSE FOR A PARENT!" The entire theatre errupted in applause while the guy picked up the child and slunk out the exit. After that, well, the mood of the movie was kind of companionable.
posted by happyroach at 1:14 AM on October 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

I think I loved this film because I pretty much hate all horror films, and so never see them, and so wasn't inured to the types of scares you are likely to get. I had no defense against the cliches, if they were cliches. I found the forest of stick figures wonderfully eerie, the interviews at the beginning good at establishing that things were askew (the baby crying when her mom talked about the witch, I loved that). I didn't find the kids overly stupid, because I was fresh out of college and still remembered the incredibly dumb shit we got up to. Also the overweening self-importance. That was totally believable.

I loved the website and spent hours there, clicking on things to see what was new, before I saw the film. It was absorbing and I enjoyed the story and thought that went into it. I never believed it was real, but the detail they went into was amazing.

Saw it in a packed theater in which the staff had also made up some of those stick-figure dealies and hung them outside. It was fun and scared me, and the shakycam doesn't make me nauseous. We actually have a copy somewhere, but I haven't watched it; I kind of feel like I'll spoil my original enjoyment, especially given the scorn this movie elicits from people.

I think it probably had a big effect on films that came after (Paranormal Activity seems like an obvious descendent).
posted by emjaybee at 6:57 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

It wasn't just the effect on movies (shakes cam became a lot more pilar, and direct found footage descendants like Cloverfeild) but also on how movies are marketed and sold

It also gave a huge shot in the arm to the Horror genre which was limping a bit post-Scream ( granted it turned into two threads, over the top torture porn as epitomized by the Saw series and New Horror, with it's slow burn, 70s homages, and DIY aesthetic owns a bit to this movie's " just go out and film your friends" vibe.)
posted by The Whelk at 9:11 AM on October 24, 2014

Wow, so much hate for this movie. I guess I shouldn't be surprised because a lot of people hated this movie when it first came out too. I loved it, it is one of the few horror movies I've ever seen that genuinely scared me, and I still love it. (By contrast, I thought the Metafilter-approved Pontypool was hilariously stupid--interesting, maybe, but too ridiculous to be scary).

I could only laugh when they kept following the compass and it kept leading them in a circle. I kept thinking "just follow a streambed dumbasses."

The point is that something supernatural is happening to them and there is nothing they can do to escape. This is what makes it so terrifying.
posted by Librarypt at 1:56 PM on October 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yup, following the streambed would presumably take them back to the same location. I guess the reason they don't try that is suddenly things would be too overt?
posted by Artw at 2:30 PM on October 25, 2014

"Someday we will look back on this and laugh heartily." --Heather
posted by scratch at 7:45 AM on October 26, 2014

Put me down as another fan. This is one of the first horror films I've watched that has genuinely scared me. It's not a great movie, and admittedly the characters are less sympathetic than they would've been had they not been making such a terrible documentary, but it is fascinating.

It's uber creepy in that it's so obvious to us what they should be doing - following a stream bed, stop fighting and stop being proud - but some of these things are also understandably a part of the group dynamics that arise when you throw a couple of people together who don't all handle things well, for various reasons. Like, the bit about Heather having gotten them lost is every dysfunctional jungle trek I've ever been on writ long. The fact that they are lost for such a trivial reason, and could (if no supernatural forces were at work) save themselves quite easily is the scary bit. And their failure to decide to do that and stick to it is also part of the dysfunctional dynamic, and also part of being in a group that isn't close knit enough for any one person to take charge without feeling like an asshole. For instance too, you don't get the sense of us-vs-them between the students and the creepies so much as a sense of "oh dammit, we've really screwed ourselves over here and no one person is really to blame, but I'm still terrified", which I find all the more terrifying.
posted by undue influence at 8:00 AM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I saw this for the first time at the weekend, it was great! I wouldn't have ever figured out the ending on my own though, that was complex.
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