Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett take us back to the Black Hills in search of answers. But their camping adventurers end up discovering more terror than anything they ever expected.
This is not the sequel you are looking for; repeat after me...
The Blair Witch Project. 1999. Directed/Written by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez.
Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams.
Rated 14A. 81 minutes.
I don’t know how people my age look back on The Blair Witch Project now 16 years since it first hit theatres and completely scared the life out of, most, everyone. Personally, as a 14 year old kid when this came out, I remember begging mom and dad to get it for my birthday. Actually it would’ve been on my 14th birthday when I officially saw this film because I believe it was released in the summer of ’99; I turned 14 that October. So honestly, the first I ever saw this the finale especially frightened me to death. I couldn’t go to bed without thinking of someone standing in the corner, facing inward, I was always thinking of that haggard basement, wondering who or what was lurking around its corners. I mean, say what you want but I think this is still one of the best found footage horror movies that has ever come out.
Now, I will concede to some people who say that The Blair Witch Project capitalized on being the first big, mass marketed found footage horror movie. Of course along with that is going to come some part of its fame; whether fame or infamy, time tells. Before this there was the savage horror Cannibal Holocaust – a film so nasty, raw and real in 1980 that Ruggero Deodato actually had to prove he didn’t kill the actors during its making. That I guess is technically the first found footage. There are others after it and before this one. For instance, 84C MoPic is a little independent fake documentary styled film about a missing during the Vietnam War. Then only a year before Blair Witch, there was The Last Broadcast, which could’ve been one of the top found footage films along with this, however, the climax/end completely ruined everything to come before it; unfortunately so, really disappointed me because I thought it was going to be incredible all around.
So The Blair Witch Project is not necessarily overly innovative in its usage of found footage. That being said, this movie benefited from the way it was filmed in that the actors basically were just given minimal script direction, then sent into the woods to be messed with by the film crew and directors. As well as the fact this film was marketed perfectly. Just as the internet took real life and became an entity of its own, sprouting into a near living, breathing thing – right before Facebook and everything else was poised to come alive too – The Blair Witch Project sucked people in with websites, marketing campaigns, and a realistic feel to the film, all combining to leave a huge impact on us culturally in terms of how horror movies would evolve; from how low budget filmmakers would go on to begin breaking into the business in a new way, to how many horror movies would come to be marketed by production companies for years and years to come.
The film follows Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard – three student filmmakers – who during 1994 head into the Black Hills surrounding Burkittsville in Maryland to do a documentary. Their subject is a legend around those parts concerning an entity supposedly named The Blair Witch. Stemming from local stories involving a frightening old woman, as well as a man who committed murder by offing numerous children, Heather and her two companions collect interviews and stories about events that may have involved the witch.
After Heather, Josh, and Michael go missing, their footage is discovered one year later. Once the footage rolls and it is all over, the viewer will be witness to what happened on their fateful trip into the woods. As the three friends walk further and further, it seems they can’t find a way out from the trees, only falling deeper and deeper into unknown territory. First, Josh goes missing when the other two wake and find him gone. Moving on without him, Heather and Michael are scared of what may have happened. Then one night there comes screams from the darkness: it’s Josh. His voice calls out for them, but they can’t figure where it’s coming from. What follows is pure terror.
For me, ultimately, what I find so effectively scary about the film is that it does feel real. To me, anyways. I know it’s not, obviously. Man – if you can’t tell that, especially nowadays in 2015 onwards, then you ought to reevaluate how the hell you’re even watching films.
What’s most real to me are the relationships between Heather, Josh, and Michael. They’re three friends and they have a common bond, they want to go out and make a little documentary; they’re students and they want to do something artistic and fun and interesting and cool. I get that sense from them, as they go on the road, traipse through the woods. Then it’s clearly obvious when things start falling apart they’re friends, because friends always get so vicious and the like when friction like that happens between one another. It all comes full circle anyways, as Heather accepts the blame and gives her video confession. So I thought this was something that helped the film all around. Without a group of people who feel connected and who seem to have relationships – essentially without people who don’t feel REAL – then there’s no way for the suspense and tension of a found footage horror to play out properly.
From the first time I ever saw this movie, right to now as I watch it again, the final scene kills me. When Heather and Michael head into the house, even the look of how rundown it is strikes me as creepy. Plus, there are all the handprints of children littered throughout; on the walls, everywhere. It’s definitely chilling. Not to mention you can hear the moans and cries of Josh somewhere within, but just like his two friends we’re lost and stumbling.
Right at the end, though, is where I’m always creeped out to the fullest lengths. We know about the story of the children being put in the corner, avoiding the eyes watching as he kills the other child – now Michael stands in the corner, facing in, as Heather approaches and then she also tips over, the camera falling and the screen going blurry. I’ve always thought that part came off highly unsettling. There’s some quiet and subdued in this part of the scene whereas before things get pretty chaotic. I like the little lull in pace and intensity as Heather and Michael enter the house and look around, just before the last punch of terror. It’s perfect, if you ask me. Quality ending. In fact, I’ve seen some say it was boring up until the final 10-15 minutes. Maybe to some, I just say the tension and suspense got treated correctly and built up in an appropriate way. Nowadays so many found footage horrors try and go for the jump scares when The Blair Witch Project uses virtually none – you might consider the final shot a jump, however, I don’t at all. Simply a jarring end. I like that this movie went for a slowburn approach. In my opinion it worked and continues to work on me today.
I’ve got to mention how awesome the production of the film is, in the sense that the actors were sent out into the woods and terrorized at points without really having full knowledge of exactly what was about to happen. I’m sure a ton of films have emulated it before in certain ways, and certainly plenty afterwards in their own right, but The Blair Witch Project is one of the first found footage movies to take that to another level. You can genuinely sense the fear in the actors at certain times as they’re careening through the woods, holding cameras, rattling at high speed while they push out into complete darkness with only the camera’s light to guide them. Honestly, if you can kid yourself into believing a ton of this is not real fear in their voices/faces/reactions, then you’re blind! I’m not saying every last bit is all natural, but you can bet your ass there is a good deal of the emotion in this film that came about honestly and in a genuine manner. That’s a big part of why this is such an enduring horror movie, and why it will always be touted as the forerunner of the found footage movement. Not because it was the very first – it was not at all – but merely because of the lasting impact it has had on audiences and the horror genre, as well as the way in which it was acted and filmed.
From the moment I’d stopped watching this movie for the very first time, after the credits rolled and I was fittingly terrified, I knew this was a 5 star film for me. Tonight, as I watched again and revelled in the perpetual terror of those last 15 minutes or more, I counted this again a perfect horror. Maybe it isn’t for others. Maybe some, or many, have gotten plenty sick of The Blair Witch Project by now at this juncture in the genre’s evolution. My opinion is that this will last the test of time, this is always going to scare me and it’s always going to scare a lot of people.
I wish that I could come back to The Blair Witch Project with fresh eyes for the first time, all over again. This is one movie I’ll never forget where I was when I’d seen it, how I felt, so therefore I can’t deny its personal impact on me. It’d be incredible to experience that sort of thing over again, anew once more. Either way, I still get that same old fright with each and every viewing. Of that, I can never ever complain.
Molly has a lot of demons. They're soon going to come out.
The found footage sub-genre can be one of division. Some people like certain found footage films. Others don’t like the entire category, can’t stand it. I’m one of those who likes the genre. A lot. But only if it’s used to an advantage, if it works well. Sometimes the concept just falls flat on its face. On the other hand, when a competent director gets ahold of a story and uses found footage correctly it can really be a treat. One thing worth noting is that a lot of times the actors involved end up shooting parts of the film. In the case of Blair Witch for instance a great deal of the footage (I can’t speculate how much but I’m sure near all of it) was caught on film by the actors themselves. Whatever the case may be, however it comes together, found footage in the right hands is a great sub-genre for filmmakers to use, and more often than not it can be frightening as hell.
Here are 15 of my personal favourite found footage films. Most of which I would consider to be the horror genre. And these are in descending order towards my favourite of them all.
15. The Collingswood Story (2002)
This is one of the lesser-seen on this list, no doubt. If only because it hasn’t been widely available on DVD, and as far as I know it isn’t on Netflix. I was lucky enough to see it a couple years ago. Mostly, to be honest, it can be boring, but for me it’s all about the payoff. If I can make it through to the end of a film (check my mention of Soft for Digging in previous post) I find a little less than exciting and the finale blows me away, I will always be impressed. This is one of those films which doesn’t have a lot going on. It’s the last 10 or so minutes that really change the game. A creepy story involving a weird house, typical. However, this film really uses found footage well as a concept, and I think that also gives this a spot on the list.
14. The Houses October Built (2014)
For a full review, click here.
I’ve never seen the documentary of the same name (also directed by Bobby Roe). This movie terrifies me. The concept is simple: a group of friends seek out the most extreme scare, to find where the wildest haunted houses across America are located. Of course they get what they’re looking for, just not exactly how they expected to find it. One thing I really loved about this flick is that the acting seemed so natural. A lot of found footage films come off as forced. These people seemed like they were very familiar with one another. Certainly they probably are, as they all appeared in the documentary The Houses October Built together. So there must have been an advantage due to that. Either way, I thought that really helped when it comes to character development. It felt like I was watching a group of friends who’d known each other a long time, made me really invest in them. When the terror really hits it can get very creepy. At one point, you’ll know it, Brandy (essentially Brandy Schaefer playing herself) is slowly figuring out she may now be alone, without her friends to protect her, and it is an extremely chilling moment. Got to me. I highly recommend this one. It’s especially great when Halloween comes around again.
13. Afflicted (2013)For my full review, click here.
This one came out of nowhere. Another film that really capitalizes on real life friendships. Derek Lee and Clif Prowse play themselves here pretty much. In the film, they’re taking a massive trip around the world, documenting everything on camera. However, the reason for doing so is because Derek has found out he’s got a serious disease, and it could very well take his life. So, all the more reason to do the trip of a lifetime with his friend Clif. While overseas though, Derek encounters a mysterious woman, and afterwards he seems to be changing. Into what, who knows. I really, really enjoyed this to the fullest. I won’t spoil this at all by telling you what Derek is turning into because it’s best left to slowly figure out. Not that it’s difficult. But it’s just worth discovering on your own. The realization setting in almost puts you in Derek’s shoes. All in all I think this is a good use of found footage, and really imaginative story with some well-done effects to boot.
12. The Conspiracy (2012)For my full review, click here.
One of my favourite things about scary movies is that some of them can be terrifying without really being what you’d call a ‘horror’ movie. One in particular, when concerning found footage, is The Conspiracy. I for one love the whole Bilderberg conspiracy theory/theories. Not that I necessarily buy into it all, or dismiss it all either, but I just love it- so much excitement in those conspiracy theories, and the theorists themselves. This film plays off all that. A couple filmmakers are doing a documentary on conspiracy theories, but it gets very dangerous, very real once they discover links here and there to a secret society that has been around for years. This movie mixes Bilderberg and Bohemian Grove stories together, and it really works. The finale is something to be seen. I found it all fairly scary. It’s not a horror, but it will definitely get to you in ways most horrors will. My interest in conspiracy/all related matters is most likely the reason this one is on the list. Really made this film work for me.
11. Exists (2014)There is nothing like a good creature feature. Essentially, Exists is a creature feature, but it’s dressed up like a found footage film. This works. Combining the real life typical plot of going into the woods up to a cabin with some friends and a really great looking sasquatch costume design, this film packs a punch. At times I was absolutely frightened to death. Bigfoot looks amazing. You don’t really get a great look at the creature most of the time; at first it’s a lot of quick, blurred images, slowly some more defined shots. Finally it all culminates near the finale when one of the characters comes literally face-to-face with the sasquatch. And is it ever wild. They did a great job making him look man-like yet still scarily ape, massive, and horrifying. I loved this. Worked really well.
10. The Last Horror Movie (2003)
For a full review, click here.
Everyone knows the classic mockumentary Man Bites Dog, and it is a doozy. Well this is my choice for the “serial killer makes a movie”-type plot. The Last Horror Movie is a frighteningly real depiction of a serial killer who decides he ought to make a true movie. He documents gruesome, horrific murders. There’s nothing much more to it. Though he does offer some psychotic ramblings to go along, it’s all mainly about the murders. Man, are they rough. There’s one in particular I actually cringe while watching (something which rarely happens nowadays as I’ve become almost desensitized on some levels) where he lights a person on fire and lets them burn. Very, very disturbing. Although I do recommend this one. It starts off as a VHS tape rented from the local video store; another little bit I really enjoy. Adds some character. So if you want some really depraved stuff, then go ahead, watch this one. It will bite on your nerves.
9. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
For a full review, click here.
Everyone knows this one. I don’t need to describe it. What I will say is this.. when the movie first came out I was about 15-years old. I hadn’t seen it yet, but I knew I would love it. I asked mom to get it for me. For my birthday, or Christmas, who knows. Anyways, when I got it on VHS I remember watching it a bunch of times. It frightened the life out of me. It was the whole thing that did it. But specifically those last moments, when Mike is turned against the wall.. it kills me. There are several moments which chill me to the bone in The Blair Witch Project. I still think it’s one of the best found footage films out there, and certainly the one that really kicked off the modern fascination with this sub-genre.
8. Frankenstein’s Army (2013)For my full review, click here.
I love any kind of horror movie that incorporates World War II and/or Nazi Germany. It’s fascinating. Frankenstein’s Army works really well. It’s at a time when sound recording with film was still relatively a new and fascinating thing. The concept of found footage works well here. There’s even one point where Frankenstein himself (played by the always fascinating Karel Roden) asks about the camera being used, and remarks he has never seen one “of those types of camera… with sound“. Great little film. There are some genuinely weird and creepy moments in this one. A lot of Frankenstein’s forgotten toys, it seems. When they start spilling out the woodwork it’s really something to behold. I was frightened a few times, just trying to put myself in someone’s shoes back then, seeing things that we wouldn’t see until almost 70 years later, and only because of the imagination of film. It’s an impressive found footage horror, and certainly belongs on this list.
7. The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
For my full review, click here.
I’d heard about this a long while before it actually came out, mainly because of Bryan Singer’s attachment as producer. Regardless, it turned out to be a super creepy little movie. Posing as a documentary about Alzheimers and those suffering with it as well as their caretakers, The Taking of Deborah Logan turns into something very scary. At first it seems like the disease is taking its toll on the titular Deborah. She scrapes her fingers until the nails nearly come off in her flower bed. At night, she’s climbing onto the counters while sleepwalking. Soon it becomes worse, and worse. And worse. Things get really scary, as Deborah’s past unfolds, and it comes back to haunt her. Literally. There are some extremely terrifying images in this one. The finale of the film is absolutely wild. I loved every second of it. I kept rewinding one part because I thought it was just so well done – the effects, everything. So satisfying. There were a few times I gasped out loud. I really recommend this to anyone tired of the same old plots in found footage, also. This is a unique and fresh look at the sub-genre.
6. The Sacrament (2013)
For a full & in-depth review, click here.
Ti West is an absolute monster in the horror field. I mean this in the most wonderful way possible. I’ve been a fan of his since The House of the Devil, purchased his first feature film The Roost which I also really loved. His films are phenomenal. One of only two feature films West has not shot using film, The Sacrament is a found footage-style look at a Jim Jones-ish cult and its charismatic leader. There’s not much else to tell plot-wise. Other than a few minor bits, West uses Jones’ story almost verbatim at certain points. But that’s not for a lack of originality. West sort of gives Jones’ story to a modern audience, some of whom might not know the story (though who they are I don’t know myself), and sets it in a world where everyone knows VICE, and how they report on stories. West sets the story in a digital world. One where the cameras are rolling. Unlike the actual massacre, we get to see everything instead of just hearing bits of audio. We experience all the deaths, the throes of agony, the screaming, wailing children and men and women dying everywhere. We hear the gunshots and the merciless shouting and the tears. It’s all there. This is an unsettling film. Anyone who passes this off as merely a rehash of Jim Jones is wrong. The story is much the same, but it is worth the watch to experience all Ti West has conjured up for us.
5. V/H/S/2 (2013) & V/H/S: Viral (2014)
I’m a fan of the entire V/H/S trilogy, however, I think the 2nd & 3rd entries are both huge improvements on the first. The 3rd, being the best of all, is an even bigger improvement on the 2nd.For starters, V/H/S 2 contained two very well executed shorts: Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale’s “A Ride in the Park”, & Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven”. The first is an absolutely fantastic POV zombie short about a man who goes for a bike ride in the park forest only to end up with the only disease worse than cancer: zombie. I really loved it. Great use of found footage and the zombie genre.
The second, “Safe Haven”, follows a documentary crew into an Indonesian cult’s complex where things slowly spiral out of control, and one of them discovers they’ve fathered more than just a baby with a good friend’s girl. This is a wild, wild ride. Lots of gore, lots of weirdness, and even a little dark humour to top things off. I really enjoyed it.
V/H/S: Viral is, in my humble opinion, the best, or at the least most imaginative, of all three entries in this trilogy. The first short, Gregg Bishop’s “Dante the Great”, is a great little horror about a magician who discovers a cloak that can help him achieve even the most unknown of tricks. I really liked this one. Very unique take on horror, and honestly makes me crave a full-length feature about some sort of magician crossed with the horror genre; it works well here. The second is a mindbender from frequent mindfucker Nacho Vigalondo called “Parallel Monsters”. Basically it’s a view into another world. And it is god damn terrifying. I’ll say no more. The third segment (a fourth was cut from the first release on VOD but apparently will be added in later) is directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, who previously co-directed the interesting Resolution, is called “Bonestorm”. It’s a bunch of skater kids versus a strange Mexican death cult of some sort, who barrel out of the desert towards the as they kick flip and ollie around a skate park littered with animal feces and strange shrines. Contrary to what some people seem to believe, I think this is the best one of the lot. It’s pure horror. I loved it. Not that the other shorts in this 3rd installment aren’t great – they are – I just think Benson and Moorehead tap into the real horror, and it’s a great little bloody short with an almost homage to Evans’ previous ending in “Safe Haven”, although not as blackly comic as that. All in all, both of these V/H/S films are worth checking out, and even the first, but the latest two have really picked up in quality moving forward.
4. Lovely Molly (2011)
Read my review for the Blu ray release, which is spectacular and creepy as all hell.
There are a lot of disturbing things going on in this one. Another Sánchez directed film (as were Blair Witch & Exists if I failed to mention, and also “A Ride in the Park” from V/H/S 2 which I did mention). This is about two newlyweds who move back to the wife’s (Molly) childhood home, where she once lived with her seemingly crazy, cruel, demented father. Soon things begin to happen. The husband is worried. His new wife once had a serious drug habit, and it starts to come back. But something is spurring it on, leading her down that path again. Something very dark. There are some great shots in this. Particularly one later in the film where Molly walks out into the darkness, into the arms of something creepy, maybe dangerous. It’s highly unsettling. Watch this. There are some disturbing shots here that will linger on and on.
3. As Above, So Below (2014)
Perhaps it’s my interest in strange history, alchemy (et cetera), or maybe this is just one well-done found footage film. Whatever. I think this is fantastic. The plot is great: a young explorer tries to carry on her father’s work searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. Along with some help, after discovering the key to a complicated map in the cave systems below Iran, she ventures into the catacombs below Paris, into hidden chambers where she believes the Philosopher Stone might just be found. I thought this film played out very nicely. There were some genuinely chilling moments. One is in the trailer, in fact. However, there is a moment where a hooded figure sits on a creepy little chair, and even though nothing really happens it’s just the atmosphere which really draws me in and captivates me. So scary. The end was not typical of most found footage films, and I have to applaud it for finishing on the note it did. Different. I think this is worth a watch. It’s unique. We don’t always have to see the same recurring plot over and over. It’s nice to mix things up a little with found footage, and it can work in a variety of ways. As Above, So Below showcases how it can work when mixed with a little history and adventure. This is like a found footage horror version of Indiana Jones at times. Great film.
2. Noroi: The Curse (2005)
I already talked about this one in my previous Halloween list. If you want detail, head back there! Just know this is one of the creepiest found footage films ever, and just a fascinatingly scary horror in general.
For my full review of this horrifying film, click here.
1. The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)* For a full & chilling review, click here.
The granddaddy of them all – The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Lucky for me I caught this a long while ago, and earlier this year actually it briefly appeared on VOD for a short time before it was pulled (just like how out of nowhere its theatrical release got pulled seemingly). Nobody can find it nowadays. Turns out this is by the same director who went on to do another of my favourites from just earlier in the list, As Above, So Below. I’m hoping with some success from his latest film it might prompt someone to distribute this one, because when I saw this film I was transformed. I couldn’t believe it. Every image seemed to horrify me worse than the last. Things escalate more and more. The whole thing is a series of tapes left by a serial killer who of course recorded all his crimes. He is the ultimate killer. His methods change from kill to kill. He is always one step ahead of police and profiles and FBI agents alike. It’s truly scary. Some of the masks the killer wears, including a Plague Doctor mask, are just the worst things you can imagine. Terrible, and perfect. This is truly a symphony of horrors. There is one scene where the killer answers his door and meets two little Girl Guides. As the audience watches, he teeters on the edge of either letting them go or killing them. You can never tell which. Until finally they walk out the door. It’s once they leave we get the real horror- one of his victims was underneath the coffee table the whole time. It is a horrifying moment. The whole movie sticks with you long after it is over. I highly recommend this. Definitely the most scary and wild found footage horror film I have ever seen. If you get the chance, check it out, and you will not be disappointed. You certainly won’t get any sleep.