Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Fig.1  Theatrical Poster

Filmed by a group of graduate filmmakers with no script and the minimum of resources, this film became a box office success in America mainly through word of mouth and a highly successful internet marketing effort (of the kind now known as viral adverts).  Often lauded as one of the most innovative horror films of modern times, it is in many ways actually a throwback to the Victorian tradition of Gothic horror - books purporting to be the recently discovered manuscript of some unfortunate soul who, pursued by an unspeakable horror, wrote down what had happened to them as a warning to history, only to end in midsentence as the inevitable caught up with them. (Empire staff, 1999).  Even the device of not actually showing anything out of the ordinary, but merely suggesting its presence through secondary evidence is not new, although it has perhaps been forgotten with the increasing sophistication of special effects (consider The Haunting, in which the fear is conjured through sounds in the night).

As a result of the absence of any special effects to cause fear in the audience, the film is forced to use suggestion and implication instead.  This is present from the start of the film, when "members of the public" recount confused memories of the various legends of the Blair Witch.  The various different stories ensure that the audience cannot tell what will happen next - there are always several possible directions the plot can take, and several interpretations of the events that unfold.  The mysterious sounds in the night are so vague (as a result of the sub-cinematic fidelity audio they are presented in) that the audience cannot determine whether their origin is animal, human or supernatural; a fact that only heightens the "fear factor".  After all, "The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark." (Ebert, 1999)

Visually, the film is a dichotomy;  filmed alternately using a black and white 16mm cine-camera and a colour video camera.  Initially, the black and white film is used only for the "documentary" footage, while the colour footage represents the "video diary" of Heather Donahue (the leader of the trio).  Some of the "establishing" black and white shots are sepia-toned, although this does not occur once the action shifts to the woods.  All of the footage was shot by the actors, using the actual cameras shown in the film.  However, the different cameras are not rigidly linked to individual characters, which would enable the audience to automatically identify who's viewpoint they are watching; throughout the film there are moments when the cameras shift to different actors.
Fig.2  Film Still

The closest the film comes to conventional "special effects" are curiously positioned piles of stones, and crude stick figures that are found hanging from trees (Fig.2).  Both the piles of stones and the stick figures form repeating motifs throughout the second half of the film, some appearing overnight outside the tent the three film-makers were sleeping in.  These uncanny occurences help hasten the mental deterioration of the cast, accelerating a breakup prompted by the fact that they have become lost in the woods and have run out of cigarettes.  At first this appears to be purely due to incompetent navigation on the part of Heather; however the suggestion then arrises that there is a more sinister cause for their problems (after using a compass to walk south all day, they find that they have returned to a spot they had passed earlier on).

The ending of the film is sudden and ambiguous, defiantly failing to answer any of the questions it has provoked in the audience.  In a final cinematic touch, the black and white camera drops to the ground, the film slipping on the reel and causing a striped, jarring image to linger for a few seconds more.  Perhaps this is the film's greatest contribution to film-making history, for it manages to create "a kind of shadow horror that only comes into play later, at night, when you want to forget it." (TimeOut Staff, 1999)

List of Illustrations

Figure 1.   Haxan Films (org) (1999) "The Blair Witch Project" Theatrical Poster [Digital Image] At: (Accessed on 02/03/2011)

Figure 2.   Haxan Films (org) (1999) The Blair Witch Project [Film Still] At: (Accessed on 02/03/2011)


 Ebert, R (1999)  The Blair Witch Project In: [Online] At: (Accessed on 02/03/2011)

Empire Staff (1999)  The Blair Witch Project (15) [Online] At: (Accessed on 02/03/2011)

Maslin, J (1999)  The Blair Witch Project (1999) In: The New York Times [Online] At: (Accessed on 02/03/2011)

TimeOut Staff (1999)  The Blair Witch Project (1999) [Online] At: (Accessed on 02/03/2011)


  1. Characteristically pithy review, Dan - but I have a niggle of my own; you've got the character's name as 'Helen', when, in fact, it's 'Heather'...

  2. Ah, thank you ^^ Corrected now