Sundance Forever: ‘The Blair Witch Project’ Restored Sundance’s Ability To Shock

In the years immediately before The Blair Witch Project debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, the American horror genre was dominated by two trends: self-aware semi-comedies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and expensive throwbacks like The Mummy and The Haunting. In the years immediately after Blair Witch made nearly $250 million at the worldwide box office, something changed. It wasn’t that found footage fright-flicks suddenly became hot. That turning point occurred nearly a decade later, with the success of Paranormal Activity — a movie that borrowed a lot of Blair Witch’s production and marketing techniques, including debuting in Park City at the Sundance rival Slamdance. Instead, the next big things in horror in the early ‘00s were low-budget “torture porn” and American remakes of Japanese ghost stories. Suddenly, irony was dead, nostalgia was buried, and audiences were ready to be shocked again.

It’d be a mistake to say that The Blair Witch Project changed Sundance’s reputation overnight either, although it did arrive at a pivotal point in the fest’s history, and had a ripple effect that’s still being felt. The buzz around Blair Witch was reminiscent of what happened to Sundance in the early ‘90s, when the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez stormed into Park City with grubby little genre pieces that then slipped into arthouses around the country, blurring the lines between B-movies and prestige pictures. In the latter half of the decade, with Sundance’s star-making bonafides duly established, the festival seemed to lose touch with its roots, and began garnering a reputation as a place where Hollywood hobnobbed and oxygen-deprived studio execs threw too much money at forgettable middlebrow flops like Spitfire Grill and Happy, Texas.

The Blair Witch Project brought a lot of Sundance’s cool back, serving as a reminder that the festival programmers could still book something cheap, edgy, and weird that would immediately become a must-see. It was a return to the era when the story behind a Sundance movie was as important as the movie itself. When an El Mariachi or Clerks made their way out of Park City, they came with a side of hype about how little they cost, and what the cast and crew went through to make them happen.

It’s hard to top the Blair Witch backstory. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez treated the production more like an extended prank than a work of art. They hired three amateur actors — Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams — based on their improvisation skills and ability to hold a camera, and then dropped the trio into the woods with loose instructions to film anything interesting that might happen. Then Myrick and Sanchez tormented them, leaving them rough instructions daily about where to go and what to do but otherwise behaving like the proprietors of the cruelest haunted house ever devised, by springing creepy surprises on their cast (and hoping that they were filming their genuinely terrified reactions).

When The Blair Witch Project debuted at Sundance — and to some extent in the months that followed — some audience members were convinced they were watching an actual documentary, and were accordingly panicked. A lot of the backlash that hit Blair Witch after it went into wide release had to do with the “secret” being revealed, that the movie was all a stunt. Some non-festival crowds felt that the movie was too cheap-looking and not all that scary, given that they knew it was a fake.

And yet the approach that Myrick and Sanchez took has helped Blair Witch endure. It’s still “real” in its own way, in the sense that even now when people who watch that film see actors actually experiencing some of the worst nights of their lives. Plus, it’s hard to deny that the hubbub around the movie — both positive and negative — helped make it a massive hit. Stories about viewers getting motion sickness from the handheld camerawork, or about true-believers scouring the internet for info about the witch and its victims — these were an early form of viral marketing.

What did all this mean for Sundance? There was no flood of breakout horror films in the years immediately following Blair Witch, but the particular circumstances of its success did establish a precedent, in that it drew up the model for how to turn a Sundance booking into A Mysterious Event. Writing about the phenomenon and the backlash for Entertainment Weekly, Ty Burr wrote, “Probably the only place where Blair Witch went over as intended was at ground zero — the Sundance Film Festival — where the frosty audience went in expecting another coy indie flick and got cold-cocked by a grainy, suggestive chiller.” Burr went on to write about the Sci-Fi channel special Curse Of The Blair Witch that preceded the theatrical release, calling it, “a fraudulent PR masterpiece to rank with the Hitler diaries and P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid.”

One of the reasons that gambit worked so well is because of the nature of Sundance. The festival mostly presents new work — never before seen by an audience — to attendees who are eager to make discoveries. Also: Sundance is a tough fest for an average film buff to attend. Tickets are scarce, and lodging in Park City is expensive. So most cinephiles have to track the hype from a distance. Those two parallel phenomena — stoked fest-goers and the folks who envy them — leads to a circumstance where people up on the mountain feel like they’re in a secret club, which people down below are anxious to join.

And this hasn’t just been the case with horror. Sundance has maintained its reputation for premiering films that coming out of nowhere to become sensations, both in Park City and at sea level — such as Once in 2007, or Whiplash in 2014. And it has a history of effectively marketed Mysterious Events, including 2010’s buzz documentaries Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop, which had Utah audiences arguing all week about whether what they’d just seen was real.

Still there’s something special about a Sundance horror experience, especially recently. The past decade has seen Park City premieres for one-of-a-kind oddities like the “vagina dentata” thriller Teeth and the coming-of-age gore-fest Excision. And the past five years has seen at least one new horror classic emerge from each edition of the festival: The Babadook in 2014, The Witch in 2015, and Under the Shadow in 2016.

As for the Mysterious Event, those are harder to pull off at Sundance now that attendees are savvier about what might be coming. But canny impresarios still work to give audiences the sense that they’re about to experience something special, or even dangerous. Kevin Smith helped pump up his horror project Red State at the 2011 Sundance by limiting screenings and forcing critics to go out of their way to see it. Even the people behind The Blair Witch Project tried to make lightning strike twice with last year’s sequel/reboot, The Blair Witch, by filming it under a different name and then sneak-previewing it at San Diego Comic-Con to an audience that had no idea what they were about to see.

Being the place that launched The Blair Witch and Blair Witch-style gimmicks is a strange legacy for Sundance to have, given that the event started as a way to showcase earnest regional dramas and art films. But this has become one of the ways that Sundance sets itself apart from other world-class fests. Cannes debuts the best of world cinema. Toronto propels movies into the Oscar race. And Sundance is the place where some ragged motion picture made for five figures can become something that everybody has to see, even if — or because — it’s likely to freak them out.

Sundance Forever concludes tomorrow with a second look at the still-mysterious 2004 film Primer. Be sure to check out our previous entries on sex, lies, and videotape, Reservoir Dogs, and Welcome to the Dollhouse.