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Movie Review: The Blair Witch Project is still the perfect horror film 25 years later

After 25 years, no movie has captured the feeling of dread quite like The Blair Witch Project managed to in 1999.

With an original budget of around only $45,000 and created by a small team of newly-graduated film students, The Blair Witch Project was released at a time when horror as a genre was changing. Slasher movies from the 80s were still popular, but movies and games that focused on a feeling of dread and psychological horror rather than quick scares were becoming more popular, and The Blair Witch Project may be one of the best movies of its era at evoking that feeling.

The film is structured as a ‘found footage’ movie, a film that presented itself as real hand-recorded footage shot entirely from the point of view of a handheld camera that was found years after the videos were supposedly taken, and was the first of its kind for the genre. Without social media, moviegoers couldn’t be sure of what they were getting into when they went to see the film, and some thought that what they were watching was a genuine documentary. Clever marketing done on a minimal budget helped to reinforce the idea that the film was true found footage, promoters even created an early alternate reality game (ARG) to make it seem even more realistic to people who looked the movie up on the early internet.

Despite a small starting budget, the final cost of the film was estimated to be around $550,000 before being unveiled at the Sundance movie festival. Despite the relatively low cost to shoot and produce the film, The Blair Witch Project ended up grossing almost $250-million worldwide, making it the 13th-most-successful independent movie in film history and inspiring other popular horror franchises, like Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity franchise.

The plot of the film follows three students who venture into the woods to document a local myth of the Blair Witch, the ghost of a woman cast out from the town of Blair in the 1700s for witchcraft. The students were never seen again. The footage they filmed during the making of their “documentary” is found a year after their disappearance, and makes up the movie the viewer sees.

The concept is intriguing right from the start simply from how the movie is shot. Everything the audience sees is through the lens of a camera being held by one of the characters, and the film has no music and very little exposition, all of which helps maintain the realistic documentary style. Most of the information the audience gets on what this Blair Witch was is given to us through interviews that the characters shot while documenting the local legend at the beginning of the movie.

Characters in the film begin to find piles of stones and strange wooden effigies around their campsite when they awake.

As the film progresses, the documentary crew finds themselves lost in the woods while searching for the titular Blair Witch, which is where the true horror of the movie begins. Instead of relying on loud noises and jump scares, the fear of being lost, running out of food and eventually being hunted are the focus.

While trying to get back to civilization, the crew begins to suffer through periods of mania and depression in a hauntingly real way. By day, the crew steadily grows more panicked as they fail to find any sign of a way out of the woods, even walking in circles at some points. By night, strange noises in the woods and stone effigies begin to appear around their campsite as something follows the crew.

The lack of music makes watching the film a surreal experience, reminiscent of watching home movies on a VHS and shot with a hand-held camera. The framing, camera work and acting all reinforce the feeling that you are watching something you found, rather than something that was made for cinema, and it makes the experience more frightening and real.

One of the crucial elements of The Blair Witch Project that many other horror movies fail to replicate is the monster, or the lack of it. The Blair Witch is never shown on screen, the only proof that it exists at all are the effigies appearing around the documentary crew’s campsite. By never showing the monster, the viewer’s mind is left to fill in the blanks of what this horrifying witch must be, always something worse than anything the movie could show.

The feeling of creeping dread that rises throughout the movie is unmatched in most horror media that came before and after The Blair Witch Project. The audience never receives any closure by the end of the movie, once again reinforcing the feeling of it being real. No heroes save the day, no villain is defeated, and you’re left without a sense of relief. 

If you are looking for a true horror movie, a movie to unsettle you and stick with you, then The Blair Witch Project remains one of the best movies to watch, even 25 years later.

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