The Blair Witch Project

Year: 1999
Production Co: Haxan Films
Studio: Artisan Entertainment
Director: Daniel Myrick/Eduardo Sanchez
Writer: Daniel Myrick/Eduardo Sanchez
Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Mike Williams

The one that started it all. Like Jaws, Easy Rider, Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer, a bunch of kids with cameras running around the forests of Maryland started a revolution in cinema.

If you're under 25 or so you won't understand, but the current 'cool' of movies thanks to Tarantino, Kevin Smith, digital video and competitions from Tropfest to Project Greenlight is a relatively new phenomenon. For a long while cinema was just another professional medium, crafted and executed by professional filmmakers.

The notion that you can buy a digital camcorder, write and direct your own movie starring your friends and dog and be a major Hollywood player in 12 months time is a very new phenomenon, and it was The Blair Witch Project that kicked the entire movement off and gave us the media climate we're in today. The democratising power of the Internet made it possible, but Myrick and Sanchez were the first to put it to the use we take for granted today.

Heather, Mike and Josh embark on a trip to shoot a documentary about a local house said to be haunted by a witch. Little do they know the house is real, the witch is real, and they're about to become the latest victims. As they stumble further into the woods, badly lost and being stalked by something terrible, the tension and fright is slowly ratcheted up to bone-creaking levels.

Unscripted and mostly unplanned, the directors gave the three cameras and had them camp out in the forest near Burkittsville making their movie. Then every night, they made like the bloodthirsty witch was stalking them – emitting screams of terror in the dark, leaving the iconic cairns near the tents, rustling the fabric walls and generally scaring as much crap out of the cast as they did the audiences.

The story of the film is that it contains footage found at the site where the three kids making the documentary disappeared. As such the directors achieved a realistic documentary feel never seen before (but copied many times since). With the actors often running in a panic through the black of night, there are long stretches where we simply can't see what's going on, just hear the panting, footsteps and ghoulish noises from deep in the forest. It was the most immersive technique ever used in a movie and put you right there in the thick of it.

The come-out-of-nowhere nature of the film's success and the entirely realistic doco feel was so complete it's even said to have tripped up the authoritative Internet Movie Database. In the early listing for the film, the editors apparently didn't realise it was all make believe and listed the three leads as deceased. You do have to take that with a pinch of salt though – the advance buzz was generated and carried out using very underground and media-savvy methods, so how will we ever know the truth behind such a successful guerrilla marketing campaign?

But the biggest shock of all? Myrick and Sanchez were the most famous men on the planet, their 15 minutes of fame spent in a spotlight more blinding than usual, and after Blair Witch, they disappeared without a whimper and have yet to make another film to this day. For a film said to be the most profitable of all time (knocked off its perch by the same claim made of Deep Throat in Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's 2005 doco Inside Deep Throat), they could have owned Hollywood.

Personally, I think there was a conspiracy. I think there's a whole lot more to the whole zeitgeist of the film - the indie production, net-based guerrilla marketing and $20,000 budget to $240m revenue. Watch the end credits. Have you ever seen so many names attached to a movie made by two film school friends? I think Myrick and Sanchez - the poster boys for the whole effort - ended up like Neil Armstrong. After years of endless press appearances as the public face of the American space program Armstrong had a breakdown and became a total recluse.

I think Myrick and Sanchez went through a similar thing. They threatened to go public with the truth that the whole thing was just a brilliant idea by a studio executive, so the studio had them killed. Ridiculous? Maybe, but what a great idea for a movie...

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