The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Like Big Brother, Britney Spears and those adjustable silver push-bikes, The Blair Witch Project is so much a part of our landscape that it's hard to remember just how recent an arrival it is. About eighteen months ago, a friend of mine in America sent me a cassette preview copy of 'a quirky little horror movie' he thought I might like. At that time, I'd vaguely heard of BWP because it was the first horror film to be invited to the Sundance Film Festival, bastion of American independent cinema, and people had said it used a mock-documentary approach along the lines of famed video nasty Cannibal Holocaust. I sat down on a Monday morning and watched the appropriately blurry tape, which certainly creeped me out in a way most horror films can't these days, then followed up on the web address in the end credits and checked out the now-famed Blair Witch Internet site - a clever spoof with background on the film's invented mythology and details about the search for the supposedly missing characters the movie shows wandering in the dark woods to meet an ambiguous but doubtless ghastly fate.

Since BWP was being distributed in the States by Artisan, the outfit best known for Darren Arnofsky's black and white maths movie Pi, I assumed it would be a modest success on that level, putting directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez in a position to follow Arnofsky by directing a more healthily-budgeted indie art movie and then crash Hollywood by signing up for a Batman sequel. Instead, the film opened big and became one of the top-grossing pictures in America the summer before last, repeating its success around the world. Considering estimates of its production budget go as low as $27,000 (about £19,000), this was the kind of story that makes movie people take notice - if a couple of nobodies in the woods with little more than cam-corders and unknown actors can score a hit on a level with Wild Wild West or Runaway Bride, why should anyone meet the $20,000,000 salary demand of the average big movie star or blow the gross national income of a lesser EU member on the special effects of The Phantom Menace?

Of course, there was a backlash. Like any film that becomes part of the cultural landscape, BWP was accused of excessive hype - though this seems to amount to putting up a website and giving interviews about the unorthodox production technique, which is hardly on a par with McDonald's tie-in stick figures or Pokemon cards. And some people just didn't get it: the improv performances, deliberately shaky camerawork, plot repetitions, off-centre framing and sometimes hard-to-make-out soundtrack strike nay-sayers as amateurish and offputting. Plus, what is ambiguously unsettling to one viewer plays as annoyingly vague to another. After all, where is this witch and when is she gonna show up and chew someone's head off? When the film became a big hit, a lot of people saw it and hated it because it didn't conform to their idea of a 'proper movie'. But, a year and a half on, the look and texture of BWP is almost orthodox - there's been a healthier-budgeted (if rushed and unsatisfying) sequel (Book of Shadows), a softcore knock-off (The Erotic Witch Project), a rip-off (The St Francisville Experiment), an I-was-here-first-but-got-released-second parallel version (The Last Broadcast) and a video compilation of short parodies (The Bogus Witch Project). If the film's power to scare you declines, it may be that all this activity mutes its real effectiveness by making the tactics overfamiliar - but there will always be a chill to Heather Donohue's signature confession, 'I'm afraid to open my eyes and afraid to close them'.

In Hearts of Darkness, Francis Coppola - mired in the jungle and spending money on Apocalypse Now - envisioned a future of low-cost portable technology whereby 'some fat girl in the mid-west with a video camera' would make a movie masterpiece and change the world. Twenty years on, some film students in Maryland proved him right.

First Published In: Cable Guide (issue unknown)

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