The Blair Witch Project1999’s Blair Witch Project was a groundbreaking indie horror title that needs little introduction. Peter Turner’s monograph successfully posits the film as one of the most influential titles in horror cinema history and explores how it subverted conventional cinematic objectivity and identification through an eerie blending of fact and fiction.

In compelling detail, Turner not only examines the significant place held by The Blair Witch Project in horror cinema, but its influence within the found-footage subgenre, its deployment of non-fiction filmmaking methods to create a sense of palpable realism, and its now infamous production process. His opening contextualisation highlights just how staggering the film’s success and subsequent impact was. Released at ‘the end of the first real century of cinema’, during a wave of multi-million-dollar CGI-heavy blockbusters including The Phantom Menace, The Blair Witch Project went on to become one of the most financially successful films of all time. A brief glance at other horror titles that year, including The Sixth Sense, Sleepy Hollow and End of Days, further demonstrates just how unique and phenomenal The Blair Witch Project was.

Heralding the era of digital filmmaking, the film paved the way for indie filmmakers keen to break out of obscurity with the use of cheap and accessible equipment and innovative means of distribution and marketing. Turner notes that commitment to realism was the prime directive of the filmmakers, and a chapter devoted to the canny marketing of the film hones in on the filmmakers’ use of a still fledgling Internet to reach its target audience and the mythology they created to further convey this sense. He suggests the influence of burgeoning reality TV was also an important contextual factor for understanding the film, as well as its echoing of the Dogme 95 manifesto.

One of the most interesting segments of Turner’s monograph explores the style and aesthetics of the film, the influence of non-fiction filmmaking and how identification is created to evoke fear in contemporary audiences. He asserts that while the subjective camerawork echoed that of earlier slasher films, it was significantly different as it increased identification with victims, not killers. The writer also draws fascinating parallels with news reporting from the First World War and how subjective camerawork was deployed to elicit empathy in viewers. Cited are influences both obvious (Cannibal Holocaust, Orson Welles’ radio play War of the Worlds, documentary/non-fiction filmmaking) and not-so-obvious (early 20th century ‘ghost photography’ and epistolary novels), while Turner also touches upon the controversy surrounding the uncanny similarities with The Last Broadcast, a film released just prior.

A pleasurable read, the author’s style is clean and unfussy and, while his love for the film abounds, he’s careful to ensure arguments and assertions are well balanced throughout. This is not only another welcome instalment of the Devil’s Advocate series, but a fascinating insight into how a deceptively simple horror film with a minuscule budget and cast of unknowns, made such an overwhelming impact on the landscape of cinematic terror. Highly recommended.

Posted by James Gracey

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (Devil’s Advocates). He contributes to Diabolique, and has also written for Paracinema, Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.