1999 Heather Donahue Stars In "The Blair Witch Project."  (Photo By Getty Images)

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You need to watch the most important cult thriller on Netflix before it leaves next week

This is still one of the best found footage movies of all time, and maybe ever.

Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It came at the right time. In the years after Reagan and Bush, the 1990s were a decade characterized by a need for truth, perhaps best epitomized in the runaway success of The X-Files, a show all about unexplained phenomena and the cover-ups that conceal them. There was also the meteoric rise of the reality show format, made popular by the gritty, exploitative Cops and the grungy, messy, influential MTV smash hit The Real World.

In parallel was the widespread adoption of digital video, a cheaper and easier way to make movies. The rise of digital engendered a new, rawer language to cinema that slowly spilled to the big screen.

But filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez weren’t trying to tap into the zeitgeist with their hit freshman feature, at least not on purpose. They simply believed that truth can be scarier than fiction. The two met as film students at the University of Central Florida in 1993 where they bonded over a fondness for documentaries on paranormal subject matter. And so, they came up with a novel concept that would define the next two decades of horror cinema: the found footage movie.

The Blair Witch Project, still one of the best found-footage horror movies of all time, is the movie you need to stream on Netflix before it leaves on May 31. Here’s why.

Writer’s note: Despite being billed as the original trailer, the embed above was created for its 15th anniversary in 2014. This is the only official upload from the studio on YouTube.

As its now-memorable poster summarizes, The Blair Witch Project is a faux-documentary made up of recovered footage “recorded” by students who went missing on Halloween 1994. Their goal is to make a documentary on a local legend known as the “Blair Witch,” an entity that resides deep in the Maryland woods. After meeting locals who tell stories about kidnapped children and serial killers, the students become lost in the wilderness where they are relentlessly targeted by an unseen presence.

The students were played by unknown New York area actors whose real names became their characters’ own: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard. (This actually resulted in Donahue’s mother receiving sympathy cards from a distant relative who thought Blair Witch was real.) The three were chosen based on their improvisational talents, as the movie had a lean 30-page script with no written dialogue. Additionally, Leonard’s own familiarity with cameras helped him get cast, and his literal lens makes up much of the movie’s enduring imagery.

At the 1999 San Diego Comic-Con, Donahue described a hostile process that sought actors who could withstand the harsh conditions that awaited them:

“I read an ad in Backstage in New York, which is where I was living at the time. You know what it said? ‘An improvised feature film, shot in wooded location, it is going to be hell and most of you reading this probably shouldn't come.’ They used every possible deterrent. When we actually got to the audition, there was another sign put out that said, ‘We want natural people ... We want people who can behave completely naturally and can basically act in extreme circumstances. If you don't like that, go away.’”
Actor Joshua Leonard, who stars as “Joshua,” in The Blair Witch Project in 1999.Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Blair Witch Project came at the right time in the wider mass culture. As a movie that eschewed the finely manicured sheen of Hollywood, the film and its subsequent popularity — and unbelievable viral marketing when “viral” was still a medical term — raised questions about the blurry lines separating reality and fiction. The same teens who watched Blair Witch in theaters were the children who play-fought watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers years earlier. When the Columbine Massacre took place on April 20, 1999 — just three months before Blair Witch’s July 30 release — the perpetuators’ obsession with violent video games like Doom reawakened concerns from parents and media consumption.

This isn’t to say teens ran into the woods en masse after Blair Witch, but it speaks to the allure of buzzy media of the moment, especially one that innovates a new cinematic language in front of audiences in real-time. Cinéma vérité existed before Blair Witch Project — documentaries like Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970), and the political doc The War Room (1992) all bear a similar narrative and visual style — its haunting premise and implicit question, “Is it real?” contributes to its mystique.

That mystique is reinforced by its frames: The ceaselessly grainy picture, a flip-flopping between Hi-8 and 16mm formats, and dizzying composition indicating the work of amateurs all create a presentation that just feels like you’re watching an unearthed smut tape. This is the negative energy to The Blair Witch Project that films and filmmakers influenced by it fail to comprehend. Maybe nothing ever will.

One of the many viral marketing tools for The Blair Witch Project in 1999, which advertised its characters — whose names were their actors’ own names — as “missing.”William Thomas Cain/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Compare Blair Witch to another film you’ll find when you search “Blair Witch” on Netflix: 2014’s As Above, So Below. Acknowledging it was made fifteen years later after leaps to consumer-grade filmmaking, its comparatively cleaner look and familiar Hollywood faces — Ben Feldman, at the time fresh from AMC’s award-winning Mad Men, and Perdita Weeks, now a series regular on the hit procedural Magnum P.I. watched by millions — ensure there’s a detachment to “reality” that Blair Witch Project avoided, even if accidentally.

This isn’t meant to pick on one movie — The Blair Witch Project itself is at the center of a multimedia franchise that includes comic books, video games, two sequels, and amusingly, its own making-of documentary — but what makes Blair Witch still special in 2021 is how it impossibly maintains the same power it had in 1999. We’re no longer questioning if it’s real, but its raw structure that eschews careful plotting or even well-made jump scares is simply everything 2010s-era horror is not. It isn’t real, but it feels real.

Trailer for The Woods Movie, a 2015 retrospective documentary about the making of The Blair Witch Project.

I was seven years old when The Blair Witch Project became a hit. Too young to see it in theaters, I understood it via osmosis. First came the TV commercials, which were chilling enough to stop any child passing by the living room. Then came parodies in Scary Movie (which I watched no matter what my mom said) and Cartoon Network in a series of award-winning promos that pitted the Blair Witch against the Scooby-Doo gang. Later, I remember walking around Walmart and seeing the film’s VHS on a shelf, its image of Donahue looking downward at a camera flashlight irremovable from my memory. Looking into her wide-open eyes terrified me then, as if she were screaming to me for help when I was on my way to play at the Nintendo kiosk.

It wasn’t until Paranormal Activity, another pivotal, low-budget found-footage horror that struck gold in similar ways to The Blair Witch Project ten years later, that I felt old enough to finally see what this was all about. Though found footage movies had evolved to become the hot new genre with Cloverfield (2007) and Quarantine (2008), all informed by a more modern take to our grasp of “reality” — that being ground-floor coverage of the War on Terror — there was something to The Blair Witch Project that still left chills in me. I felt it again now, revisiting it for this piece. It’s not that The Blair Witch Project is real, it’s just convincing enough you could believe it.

The Blair Witch Project is streaming now on Netflix until May 31.

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