[To help get you into the spooky spirit this October, the Daily Dead team thought it would be a great idea to spotlight some of our favorite witchcraft movies that just might cast a spell on you and make your Halloween season a "hexcellent" one!]
"In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found."
Or so the marketing campaign told us. After The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, audiences learned that there never was a group of film students, that the Blair Witch was made up for the purpose of this movie, and that the notion that this footage had been discovered in the woods was all just a ploy. Some found this clever, while others found it disingenuous. Either way, this simple premise gave rise to a film that would have a huge impact on horror cinema.
As the story opens, Heather (Heather Donahue), Josh (Joshua Leonard), and Mike (Michael C. Williams) are heading into the Maryland woods to film a documentary on the Blair Witch, a local legend that had haunted the woods surrounding Burkittsville for decades. Everything goes fairly well for the first couple of days—they get the footage they were hoping for and they seem on track to piece together a good film upon their return. In the evenings, however, they begin to hear evidence that they might not be alone in the woods. Strange sounds and distanced laughter can be heard from outside their tent at night.
After camping for a couple of nights, they begin what they expect will be a relatively easy return trip to their car. Instead, their journey turns into a miles-long hike through the woods as they try again and again to get their bearings. Though Heather insists that she knows where they are, they don’t ever seem to make any progress. They walk for hours and see no signs of civilization. They are hopelessly lost. As the days progress, the group becomes increasingly tired and desperate. They run out of food, are confronted with more and more evidence that someone (or something) is following them, and their patience wanes as their fear increases and begins to take over.
It is in this space that the genius of The Blair Witch Project is demonstrated and the film really shines. So much of this movie is based on what we don’t see. Throughout the film, the Blair Witch remains a mysterious and undefined entity. She never appears to our lost filmmakers. There is no monster that pops up in the third act. She is just a force that makes her presence known every night. She is ever present and inescapable.
The sense of fear to be found in this film lies in our own imaginations. Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick really work with the “less is more” angle and rely on the audience to fill in the gaps of what we are seeing onscreen. As the nighttime attacks become more intense and frightening, Sanchez and Myrick utilize the dark empty space that fills the frame to its fullest advantage and horrify the audience with just the possibility of what might be out there.
Adding to this is the ever-present sense of stress that the characters feel from being lost and isolated in the woods. As the days roll on, Heather, Josh, and Mike become increasingly exhausted, frightened, and frustrated by their predicament. They argue, they distrust each other, and eventually begin turning on one another. The characters’ emotional state affects their ability to contend with the supernatural activity that they are encountering and also feeds the audience with a sense of desperation as the days wear on and they are no closer to finding their way home.
The Blair Witch Project is a film that revels in the unseen, in wondering what might be watching us from the darkest spaces beneath the trees. Though Heather, Josh, and Mike set out to learn more about the story of the Blair Witch, the Witch herself remains hidden in shadow. The filmmakers don’t solve a mystery as they had planned; instead, they become a part of her legend.