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Blair Witch at 20: How the Found-Footage Classic Changed Horror Movies

blair witch project

This month marks the 20th anniversary since the landmark horror film The Blair Witch Project premiered at Sundance Film Festival, on Jan. 25, 1999. Made on a shoestring production budget in the backwoods of Maryland by an amateur cast and crew, the indie movie earned nearly $250 million at the worldwide box office and garnered widespread acclaim, currently holding a critics' score of 87 percent on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.

But more than becoming an unlikely runaway commercial and critical success, the low-budget horror movie challenged the limitations of both horror films and the traditional constraints of the cinematic medium itself, changing them forever. With its strong adherence to verisimilitude and guerrilla promotional campaign, the film also serves as a major early example of viral marketing, years before the advent of mainstream social media.

RELATED: A Quiet Place Is the Most Innovative Horror Film Since Blair Witch Project

Written and directed by recent University of Central Florida film school undergraduates Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, the film follows fictional film students Heather, Mike and Josh attempting to film an amateur documentary about the Blair Witch, a local legend in Burkittsville, Maryland. As the small film crew ventures deeper into the surrounding forest, they find the woods haunted after locals warn them of a string of murders in the area dating as far back as the 19th century. Lost, the trio are stalked by an unseen, supernaturally malevolent force before being systemically hunted down and killed in the face of an escalating sense of dread and sinister sights.

The Blair Witch Project

Conceived by Myrick and Sanchez as the duo were completing their undergraduate studies in 1993, the filmmakers sought to blend the real-world scares of paranormal documentaries with a more traditional horror narrative. The screenplay the two wrote was reportedly 35 pages, with the directors planning to rely heavily on improvised performances from its main cast. After posting an open casting call, actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard were cast as the main characters, portraying fictionalized versions of themselves.

RELATED: Blair Witch Project Is Being Turned Into a TV Series

Filmed on a production budget of $60,000, principal photography lasted eight days during October 1997, with filming ironically concluding on Halloween. Post-production turned out to be the biggest hurdle for the project, lasting eight months with the filmmakers anticipating their passion project to premiere as a late night cable television movie. Instead, the film earned a spot at 1999's Sundance Film Festival with a well-received midnight screening leading to Artisan Entertainment purchasing its distribution rights for $1.1 million and securing a wide theatrical release for that July.

NEXT PAGE: The Blair Witch Defined Viral Marketing

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