Filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick popularized the found-footage horror film with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, a movie they created through Haxan Films, the production company they founded while students at the University of Central Florida. (Haxan is also responsible for Sanchez’s 2014 Bigfoot found-footage feature, Exists, as well as his “Ride in the Park” segment for V/H/S/2.) In the time since the massive success of that film, the found-footage approach steadily rose in popularity thanks to movies like REC, the V/H/S series, and, especially, Paranormal Activity.
The “Blair Witch effect” wasn’t immediate. It would take years for major studios to begin investing money in such movies. The first Paranormal Activity film had its festival premiere in 2007 then became a box office hit when Paramount released it in 2009. In 2008, Cloverfield used found footage to take a different approach to the giant monster movie and in 2013 Chronicle borrowed it for a superhero-inspired story, proving its effectiveness for films outside the horror genre. Found footage is still riding the momentum from those earlier films. Three found-footage features — Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, The Gallows and The Visit — have seen wide releases in 2015, to varying degrees of success. The most recent Paranormal Activity film finished sixth in its opening weekend, and received generally unfavorable reviews.
What does the future hold for found-footage horror? In addition to Myrick and Sanchez, Uproxx spoke with director Adam Wingard and film critic Brian Collins – two men looking for a higher standard in horror cinema. Wingard helmed the razor sharp home-invasion film, You’re Next, the tense thriller The Guest and an entry in each of the V/H/S films. He’s currently working on an adaptation of the Japanese manga, Death Note, as well as the American remake of I Saw the Devil. Collins splits his time writing for Birth.Movies.Death and his Horror Movie a Day site, and is one of the leading voices in horror criticism.
The Blair Witch Project popularized the found footage film when it was released in 1999. While not the first found-footage horror movie — that distinction goes to the 1980 Italian film, Cannibal Holocaust — many films have tried to duplicate Blair Witch‘s formula in the aftermath of its monumental financial and critical success. To understand the gravity of its impact on the industry consider this: Fewer than a dozen films used a similar format before its release, and more than 120 movies have used it since. Few have had the return that Blair Witch has. On an estimated budget of $60,000, the movie raked in almost $250,000,000 — it stands as one of the most profitable independent films of all-time.
Brian Collins (Birth.Movies.Death film critic and writer): Blair Witch gets credit for being a great horror movie and being a big hit, but I don’t think it gets enough credit for really doing that thing right. Maybe like a half-hour in the movie, before they know they’re kind of f*cked, Josh is describing a scary thing that happened to him during the night. [Heather] didn’t get the top of the conversation, and [Josh] didn’t film [what happened during the night], and that’s the way you do it. Even if you only realize it subconsciously, that’s exactly how that would have happened in real life. [You should] always have a reason for the start of a shot in those movies and so many of them don’t, and it just drives me up a wall.
Adam Wingard (Director of You’re Next and The Guest and contributor to V/H/S 1 & V/H/S/2): The Blair Witch Project… it started the whole thing. In some ways it’s the most honest found-footage film, because they didn’t even give a sh*t about how that film looked. It’s the actors filming a lot of it to the point where it so realistic that about 40% of the film is literally shots of people’s feet.
Eduardo Sanchez (Co-writer, co-director of The Blair Witch Project): I think the success was based on… You know it was something new. It was something that people hadn’t seen before. I think it was just a movie, that when we did it, it was very much an experimental film. It was no-name actors, and we shot on a Hi8 — a pretty inferior video format — and we didn’t mic our actors. We didn’t really light anything. I think it was kind of one of these things that people didn’t know what to make of it. The way [distributor] Artisan marketed it — that this was actually real footage that’d been found — I think it intrigued a lot of people even though there was a lot of backlash in the latter part of the release. I think a lot people went in expecting something that the movie wasn’t. These days, who knows what would have happened with Blair Witch? I think it would have gone straight to DVD in this day and age. We never dreamt that it was going to be in the theaters.
Daniel Myrick (Co-writer, co-director of The Blair Witch Project): Our intention behind it was making it genuinely scary. I think part of the problem of films coming out around that time — they were higher budget Hollywood movies that weren’t actually scaring people. At least, they weren’t scaring us. Ed and I just wanted to have an experience like we had when we saw The Exorcist and The Shining, and have a movie that really did kind of get to the base nature of people’s fear and that was a big part of it. And then there’s other factors like the rags to riches story, and the way we marketed the movie, and that had a lot to do with the press. But, ultimately, the movie has to stand on its own merits and I think for a lot people it did.