The genesis of TBWP is well-known and the film's innovative marketing campaign, which blurred the line between fact and fiction, has similarly become the stuff of legend. Despite its polarizing effect on viewers, TBWP was a game-changer whose impact is still being felt today with the continued popularity of 'hand-held horror' films such as Cloverfield and [REC]. And the democratization of filmmaking, thanks to digital technology, has only made it more possible for those outside the establishment to follow TBWP's DIY example.
That the film's directors - Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez - and its stars - Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams - have yet to recapture the same success as TBWP, would seem to encourage the argument that TBWP was nothing more than a fluke, rather than a 'real' movie. However, I maintain that as a film - not just as an internet marketing phenomenon - TBWP is genius. My own experience with seeing it for the first time was ideal - months before the film came to theaters I had a VHS dub which I watched alone late at night. I knew all about the story behind the making of the film and had no illusions as to whether this was real footage or not but yet the film rattled me just the same.
Initially I had put in the tape simply as a quality check but after just a minute I was compelled to keep watching. By the time Mike and Heather approached that Godforsaken house in the middle of the woods during Blair Witch's final moments, I was in a full-on cold sweat and in trying to sleep afterwards I experienced something I never have with horror films - a genuinely restless night. There was something about the movie that I couldn't be blasé about. It wasn't the hype - the first trailer hadn't even premiered and I didn't have a computer at the time so I was out of the loop when it came to the film's internet campaign - it was just about the movie itself.
For some people, TBWP will always be bullshit. Some people just don't find it the least bit scary and that's fine. For those like me who find it terrifying, its effect is something that can't quite be explained. I think the movie is like a psychic Rorschach blot and some people see something vividly frightening while others just see some spilled ink. I do find that people who disregard the movie tend to take the perspective of "that wouldn't happen to me". You know, "...all they had to do was follow the river" or "why didn't they just climb a tree" or "I would never go into the woods without a gun" and that kind of practical, pragmatic talk. And to me, that's the denial stance of people who are, deep down, spooked by the idea of losing control - of facing a dilemma that will not respond to reason. The situation the characters in Blair Witch face is like the Kobayashi Maru - it's a no-win scenario. And I think that - more than the film's jerky camerawork, and more than the bickering between the lost trio - is something that some people can't wrap their heads around.
Whether they win or lose, the last survivors of a horror movie usually earn the right to look even the most implacable monster in the eye - there's an opportunity for some comforting last-minute exposition, a way to Understand It All. But in Blair Witch, Mike and Heather descend into that terrible basement understanding nothing but their own fear. Everything else is darkness.