I first became aware of The Blair Witch project while watching a TV news report of a screening at a festival (it may have been Cannes). The report spoke of people being literally terrified, and running from the cinema. Some were being physically sick, others were almost hysterical (allegedly). It piqued my interest somewhat. Even back in 1999, at the tender age of 20, I was a long time, jaded horror fan. Nothing scared me. I’d seen it all. Extreme gore, serious atmosphere, the works.
I next came across it a few weeks later, when visiting my video dealer in the now long since closed Colosseum shopping centre in Manchester. I’d visit every couple of weeks to see what new titles he had, and what illicit ones were available. The guy was great. he had the video nasties, VHS copies of the then new fangled DVDs that were popping up of many previously hard to get films. And a few bootleg copies of films weeks or even months before they were in British cinemas. One of these titles was The Blair Witch Project. The VHS sleeve didn’t look much. A badly photocopied image of one of the promotional posters, done on yellow paper. But I bought it (for just £5!), and thought what the hell.
It sat unwatched in my collection for a couple of weeks, as I was returning to university. Once I was settled back into my new digs, I decided to finally watch it.
Watching a grainy VHS (obviously filmed from the back of an auditorium on a camcorder) gave this already “real” looking film an extra layer of verisimilitude. And it was damned creepy. Not scary as such, but creepy as hell. I loved it. I sent the tape on a tour of my friends, urging them to watch it. Pretty much everyone enjoyed it. We even went to see it on the big screen when it finally hit British cinemas. Yes, the effect was lessened, but I took as much enjoyment from watching the audience as much as the film. People were silent. Totally silent. Until the end. Then there was screaming. Genuine terror from some. It was glorious.
Of course, we all know now that the whole film was a “fake”. There was no Blair Witch. No missing film makers. But back in those days, when the internet was till in its relative infancy, people still believed. It was the first (and still to this day best) example of “viral” marketing I’ve ever seen.
And for a film student, it showed just what could be achieved through clever use of extremely limited resources. Good sound design, and a deliberately disorienting set up for the cameras (operated by the actors) allowed the makers to put together a full feature film for just $60,000. It grossed almost $300m.