"In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary...A year later their footage was found."
I don't know about you, but that one line was enough to get me on board with The Blair Witch Project when I first heard about it in the spring of 1999. Being in film school, I was starting to broaden my horizons a bit (I had recently seen Casablanca for the first time!), but I still loved horror first and foremost, and the fact that it was a horror film about film students made it extra enticing. In fact, it was the first film I ever drove into Boston to see when it opened at the Kendall Square Cinema that July; usually if the movie didn't play at my hometown's multiplex, I simply didn't see it. But I didn't want to wait another week or two until the film opened wide - I had to see it NOW.
See, by now we all know the truth, but back then, when the film was only playing in a handful of theaters, it was easy to fool friends into believing that the movie was indeed actual footage of a lost film crew. Since they don't actually die or even take harm on camera (save for some shoving and biting among the increasingly at-odds trio of actors), it's almost conceivable that the movie could be legit without crossing any major moral lines - you can't call it a snuff film when there's no evidence that they're even dead at all, let alone killed on camera. And unlike far too many "found footage" movies of today, the actors weren't recognizable - their IMDb pages were sparse, listing only this one film (and even had them as "presumed dead" for a while), and the backstory even made some sense: the police gave the footage to some filmmakers in order to get it developed (!) and edited into a narrative they could understand, since they just found a bunch of film cans and out of order Hi-8 tapes.
And that's part of the genius of Blair - there's a huge mythology both to the story in the film (the titular menace, Rustin Parr, Coffin Rock, etc) and to the film itself, all laid out in an impressive website put together and mastered by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, the two directors behind the film. I recall spending a few hours on the site a few weeks before the movie opened, and it all played along - the two men never let on that what they were doing was a fictional film, to the extent that they were sort of playing characters themselves. Add in the books and Sci-Fi Channel specials, and you have one of the most impressive examples of world-building ever seen for a film, one that has yet to be matched by any of its peers. Most modern found footage movies don't even bother to provide an explanation of how we are seeing the footage we're seeing (some even end in a manner that would suggest the footage couldn't possibly be found - how the hell did all that 8mm footage get back from the damn moon in Apollo 18?), but the team behind Blair thought everything out and gave us so much more than "just a movie" to entertain us.
Not that any of that stuff is essential to understanding the movie, but it certainly makes it more fun. The most famous example would be Mike standing in the corner at the end - this was based on part of the Rustin Parr story that was created for the mythology but plays almost no real role in the film. According to the story, Parr was a hermit who had kidnapped eight children from town and murdered them in his isolated cabin (the location seen at the end of the film), taking two at a time into the basement and having one stand in a corner facing away from the action so that they couldn't see him kill the other child. The movie actually does have an explanation for this now, but only after people kept questioning Mike's position at the end of the film (the guy who explains the corner thing a few minutes into the movie was a late reshoot, and the only part of the film not shot by Heather, Mike, or Josh) - only those who had read up on the website would have understood it before they added the clarification a few months after their Sundance premiere. Another fun little Easter Egg concerns the two fishermen who tell the story about seeing the ghost near the river - it's a fun scene anyway, thanks to the younger man's reactions toward the older one, but it's even funnier when you know that the younger guy is the other one's son-in-law.
That tidbit can be learned in the Blair Witch Dossier, one of the many books that came out during the franchise's peak of popularity (basically, the time from when the first film hit to when the second, much-hated (BUT GOOD) film came along and pretty much killed the series). To this day I still have it on my bookshelf, along with the other tie-ins (there was even a YA series) and the three video games. Hell, the T-shirt I bought that summer still fits, I'm happy to say (the glow-in-the-dark "Stickman" no longer "works", however). Even the soundtrack had a little bit of backstory - rather than the usual compilation of random songs, it's actually supposed to be a copy of the mix CD that was found in Josh's car once the police began investigating their disappearance.
But really, none of this stuff would matter unless the movie was good, and I'm happy to report that it holds up quite well. If anything it looks even better now, as we are constantly being besieged by found footage movies made by "filmmakers" who don't bother to think things through, cheat camera angles whenever it's convenient for them, and generally just make terrible movies. A key element to Blair's success is that it actually IS pretty real, in that the three actors were left alone during the week-long shoot, working not from a script but from general guidelines that would be left for them (along with fresh batteries) each morning. Most found footage films today don't even really let the actors work the camera, but that's not the case here - again, only that one quick reshoot bit was shot by someone besides the members of our trio. Also, they're smart enough not to get every money shot; when Josh disappears, it's off camera - the film cuts from a rare pleasant moment between the three to Heather screaming for him to return from wherever he went, never to be seen again. It drives me nuts when I'm watching one of these things and the cameraman just happened to be filming absolutely nothing of interest, only to get a perfect shot of something exciting later. There isn't even a lot of "Why are they filming?" eye-rolling; sure, the end sequence was probably a stretch, but we can always go with the "they needed to keep the camera running to keep the light on" excuse, and they meet us halfway - one camera lacks sync sound, so while we see both of their perspectives on the frantic final few minutes, we can only hear Heather (with the 16mm camera) when she's close to Mike.
And all of that is what makes me so burned out on today's found footage craze, because I know it can be done right (and that the film can hold up), and yet so many of these new ones can't even get the basics done correctly - and if they're not even worth watching NOW, how bad are they going to look in 14 years? Not to mention that no one tries to "William Castle" their movies; there was one called Evil Things that was sent with a letter from the FBI claiming that this was their "evidence file", but that was just for press reviews (before the movie even had distribution) so it doesn't really count. We have four Paranormal Activity movies (and two more on the way) - where's the mythology for this storyline? Why hasn't it spread to other mediums in order to give more depth to the films themselves, while also establishing it as a major horror series on par with the '80s icons like Freddy and Jason (who had spinoff TV shows, video games, novels, etc)? All these years later, we're still waiting for someone to learn the right lessons from Sanchez and Myrick's phenomenon (not to mention that long-promised 3rd movie), but I have a feeling The Blair Witch Project will forever remain the film we name-check when discussing this particular sub-genre, and that's fine with me.