Top 100 Movies of the 1990's: #93 The Blair Witch Project
Box Office: $140.5 million
Oscar Nominations: None
Oscar Wins: None
Available to Stream: HBO Max, Hulu
Despite the fact that The Blair Witch Project was a trailblazer in not only how it was marketed but the "found footage" genre as a whole, it wouldn't be the same sensation if it had come out today. It couldn't be. We've become more cynical and disbelieving in what we see. It's tough to explain without making people who lived in 1999 sound idiotic but there was a large contingent of people who saw this movie and believed what they were seeing on the screen was real. Or they at least believed that it could be. Full disclosure: I was not one of those people but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't difficult to put that disbelief aside in the theaters watching this movie and getting the shit scared out of me.
This was the first movie that had the promotion of the movie go viral on the internet. The timing was perfect as it was part of this short-lived nexus where the internet was in many homes but was still so new that people still saw it as trustworthy place. Looking back, maybe this was the beginning of the end of people trusting anything online.
For all it's hype and promotion, it's a very effective scary movie. It still feels real all these years later. It was a brilliant move by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick (who both wrote and directed this) to not have a script with dialogue. Having the cast improvise makes the conversations feel less polished but also more organic. This is about as raw and as gritty as you will ever see a hit movie look and that's due to the wisdom by keeping the camera shots that are out of focus in the movie. The terror is in the minimalization.
When this came out, it was beloved by critics (Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars!) and the horror film fans who saw it opening weekend. When it became a monster hit and people who don't like scary movies or have an appetite for smaller movies saw it, that's when the tide turned. Flash forward to today and a lot of people have a negative connotation with the movie. I've heard the movie described as "kids playing in the woods with sticks and stones". Usually movies that are innovative have more appreciation as time goes on but that isn't the case here.
Cloverfield is a better made movie than The Blair Witch Project. There's no question about that. But I was far more scared when I saw Blair Witch. Would movies like Paranormal Activity or Chronicle exist without Blair Witch? Maybe. I do think that with having video on our phones, some type of "found footage" genre would exist eventually but having a movie in the genre make $140 million domestically gave it a huge jump start.
The Blair Witch Project was one of the most profitable movies that year but it never hit #1. It did finish number two twice (behind Runaway Bride and then The Sixth Sense in the following week). The word of mouth was so positive from it's first week of wide release to the second that it only dropped 16%. That's an unheard of drop off for a horror movie (which can often drop 50-70%). It would up being the 10th biggest movie to come out in 1999 ahead of Stuart Little, The Green Mile and Best Picture winner American Beauty.
The cast used their real names as the characters they played in the movie (which they all regret now). When the movie came out, Artisan Entertainment, the film studio who bought the rights to Blair Witch at Sundance for a $1.1 million, had the three actors listed as deceased on their IMDB pages. They were also prohibited from doing press for the movie for the first couple weeks it was released. Eventually the embargo was lifted but the actors Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard said in the book 'Best. Movie. Year. Ever.' that it was tough getting work afterwards because casting people didn't feel they were really acting in the movie. Of the three actors, only Leonard is still working in movies and television today.
Even the creators of the movie Sanchez and Myrick never directed or wrote a movie that would get a wide release in theaters again. They were asked to do a sequel by Artisan immediately after the success of the first film but they wanted to do a romantic movie instead. That project never landed and when Artisan finally got the sequel made, no one involved with the first movie took part and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was hated by critics and audiences alike. I do wonder if this movie will be better received by movie fans as years go by. The lack of special effects and taking place in the woods makes the movie age better than other movies from the 90's. If you haven't seen it in awhile, check it out. It's a brisk 82 minutes and it might have more scares then you remember. The last ten minutes are outstanding with Heather's confessional and when they find the house. I hope once people can get away from remembering how the film was sold to us and just respect it for what it is, it will be much more appreciated.
93. The Blair Witch Project
95. Dirty Work
98. Any Given Sunday