Fifteen years ago, five Orlando filmmakers took to the woods, scared the living daylights out of us—and changed movies forever.
The first thing you notice is the image. Maybe it’s blurry. Maybe it looks like a home video, surveillance camera footage or something shot on a cell phone.
The camera doesn’t hold the actors steady in the frame. It shakes. When a character runs, the image bounces along.
You could be watching Cabin in the Woods or the recent Alien Abduction, a Paranormal Activity sequel or Apollo 18. If the shaking or the shocks give you a sense of déjà vu, that’s because the homage is obvious. You’re watching another offspring of Orlando’s own Blair Witch Project.
Fifteen years ago this summer, the movie that changed the movies opened. Fans debated for months before it was released whether or not it was “real.” People became nauseated by the disorienting images. It became a summer film phenomenon, a $60,000 movie that earned a boatload of money, and made “The Haxan Films Five”—the Orlando filmmakers who wrote, shot, produced, edited and marketed it—famous.
In those ensuing 15 years, you’d be hard pressed to find a month where a “found footage” horror film or thriller hasn’t found its way to a cinema near you. The popular movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes even has a “Movies like The Blair Witch Project’’ page—with scores of titles ranging from the Godzilla-in-all-but-name Cloverfield to The Last Exorcism. Then there were the parodies—on big screens and small. And then the backlash. The film’s fan rating on the Internet Movie Database reflects that, with jaded horror buffs proclaiming they’re “over it.” But the list of knockoffs only grows. Why?
Making the footage look like something no one was ever supposed to see is a great gimmick. Having the images mimic what the person is going through—panic, terror or, when the camera tumbles to the ground, death—is a brilliant, effective and cheap effect.
The Blair Witch Project felt real. And, as Alissa Walker of the Gizmodo blog noted earlier this year, it is “still the scariest movie ever made…We wanted to believe. And we did. Some of us a little too much.”
Co-director Eduardo Sanchez still makes movies under the Haxan Films banner. He and producer Gregg Hale just sold Haxan’s Exists, an indie Bigfoot thriller, to Lionsgate Entertainment. Producer Robin Cowie just moved back to Orlando and is becoming creative director of the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. He also runs Indaba Media Capital, which finances and produces family entertainment such as The White Giraffe and FREAPS!, which are in development. Co-director Daniel Myrick’s Under the Bed recently sold to Radar Pictures. Producer Michael Monello, credited with masterminding the first great online “viral” movie campaign, started Campfire, a New York advertising firm that does “participatory storytelling campaigns for brands” such as Infiniti, the car company, and HBO’s Game of Thrones.
But in the late 1990s, these friends who had met in the film programs at Valencia College and the University of Central Florida were in rural Maryland, “abusing actors,” as Myrick and Sanchez used to joke, dragging three novice thespians into the woods with a tent, a couple of hand-held cameras and a supply of simple, yet chilling twig sculptures. Gregg Hale still remembers one rainy night when the actors left all the equipment deep in the woods and he had to retrieve it. He grabbed a compass and “I was about three steps into the trees when the thought came into my head: ‘So this is why I joined the Army when I was 19.’ ’’
The resulting ghost story—a student film crew goes to make a documentary about a dead witch and is picked off, one by one—grabbed moviegoers, and still does. People lined up and went online to compare notes afterward. Magazine covers, network news stories, even trading cards followed. It wasn’t just a film; it was a phenomenon.
“As a completely non-athletic kid with no ambitions to ever play baseball professionally,” Monello jokes, “ I never imagined I’d make it onto a Topps trading card.”
The creators: From left, Daniel Myrick, Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale, Mike Monello, Eduardo Sanchez
Almost everyone associated with the movie, including the Five and the film’s credited production designer, Ben Rock (now a director), had Hollywood taking their calls.
But the real tribute wasn’t a production deal, the houses many of them were able to buy with their first Hollywood money, or even the lawsuits that always follow a successful indie film. The Blair Witch legacy was ensured by something the late comedian Fred Allen once said about show business: “Imitation is the sincerest form of Hollywood.”
Film after film used “found footage” as its gimmick. Never as well as The Blair Witch Project, but when the godfather of indie found-footage horror, George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) delivered the film-students-document-a-zombie-invasion Blair Witch knockoff—2007’s Diary of the Dead—the Haxan legacy was secure.
When, in an interview writer-director Oren Peli gave much of the credit—unprompted by me—for his surveillance-camera ghost story Paranomal Activity to The Blair Witch Project, the genius of Haxan’s concept and execution seemed clearer than ever.
“After hearing so many people in the industry write off Blair Witch as a singular fluke, it was nice to see Paranormal Activity come in and prove them all wrong 10 years later,” Robin Cowie says.
So here’s a 15th birthday salute to shaky cameras that sickened little old ladies who bought their tickets to see what all the fuss was about; to unknown actors Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams; to the Haxan Boys and all those months of editing, showing rough cuts to friends and family at Maitland’s Enzian Theater; to the former Artisan Entertainment, which picked up the Sundance Film Festival smash that proceeded to show to full houses all that summer of 1999 around the world.
It’s no longer just “the scariest movie ever made.” It belongs to the ages. It’s the touchstone, the standard and the inspiration for a generation of imitators, and generations of film students—kids who all want to make a movie as good, as scary as The Blair Witch Project.