You gotta hand it to indie horror directors committing to a concept. It's not enough to just make the film on your own. You need to sell it: to the audience, to distributors, to critics--anyone who can advocate for the film and get it seen by more people.
Writers/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez created one of the first successful found footage films in The Blair Witch Project. It took a long time for everyone involved in the project to actually admit it was a narrative feature, not a documentary, when asked about it.
The concept is simple. We're watching the only evidence that exists to explain what happened to three would-be documentaries who disappeared in the woods. They set out to make a film about the mythical Blair Witch and never returned. The footage is presented raw and unedited in the hopes of spreading their true story.
Obviously, something as ambitious as The Blair Witch Project shot on such a small budget (under $100,000 for a full length feature horror film with a variety in shooting locations and props) had to be carefully planned. The spontaneity and believability of the found footage comes from the camerawork itself.
Actors Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams play Heather, Josh, and Mike. They are actors, not camera and sound people, yet part of their job in filming The Blair Witch Project was to shoot all the footage themselves. This means that the actors playing novice filmmakers legitimately make all the focus, stability, and framing mistakes young filmmakers make because they're not trained to shoot films.
It also means that, believably, as the film goes on, the quality of filmmaking improves. That's a blessing and a curse. The opening half of The Blair Witch Project made me sick in theaters, it made me sick on VHS, and it made me sick again streaming it on Netflix for this review. Everything is just so hard to focus on because of the constantly moving camera. This film is literally where the term "shakycam" came from. Stories littered the news for weeks about people getting sick in theaters because of this film.
The reason so many people were willing to believe The Blair Witch Project was real was because of the amateur quality of the film itself. The actors give very natural performances, probably because they were too focused on actually handling the expensive film equipment to overthink their action. The locations are perfect and the natural props comprised of twigs, vines, and rocks fit into the landscape.
The problem with amateur film stock, however, is scope. Little home movies shot by first-timers were meant to be played on a sheet hung up in the family rec room, not on the big screen. Seeing that much of the screen constantly move, tilt, shake, and shiver at that scale is horribly disorienting. Even shrunken down to half my 24" monitor at times to help with my motion sickness, The Blair Witch Project was a challenge to sit through in one take.
I actually do like the story of The Blair Witch Project. I think the edit of the footage for pacing and the slow build work really well. The big action sequence at the end is not only justified, it's essential to the success of the film.
I just think that later found footage/shakycam films sell the concept without the motion sickness. Films like Chronicle, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and Trollhunter hit the same concept with better quality footage. Shoot, earlier examples like Man Bites Dog and The Last Broadcast don't have that much instability onscreen. It's really taken a step too far with the opening and closing credits also intentionally shaking all over the screen.
The Blair Witch Project is certainly worth watching if you haven't experienced it before. Just temper your expectations and settle your stomach first. What you can see is great; what you can't see can hurt you.
The Blair Witch Project can be streamed on Netflix.