While the horror genre has remained a consistently popular one over the decades, it is marked by the rise and fall of certain subgenres. From the Exorcist-inspired wave of possession movies in the ’70s to the glut of slashers that followed the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th in the ’80s, all it takes is a single movie to inspire dozens of homages, copies, and rip-offs. In July 1999, a micro-budget indie horror titled The Blair Witch Project hit US theaters and changed the shape of horror–and other genres, to be honest–for the next decade and beyond.
The Blair Witch Project’s gimmick was to present the movie as if we were watching the recovered footage left by a trio of missing student filmmakers as they investigated the legends of a witch who lurked in a spooky wooded area. This wasn’t the first time the technique had been used–the 1980 Italian shocker Cannibal Holocaust was partly found footage, while mock-documnetraries like This is Spinal Tap and the notorious British TV show Ghostwatch arguably used this technique too. But Blair Witch Project was by far the most influential.
In terms of the film itself, it gave the events on screen an intensity and scary realism, helped by the naturalistic performances by its three actors, that delivered a frightening experience unlike anything else many audiences had experienced before. And in terms of the industry, it broke down a financial barrier for filmmakers. You no longer need an experienced crew and expensive equipment. With a domestic camcorder, a location, and a few friends, anyone could make a found footage movie that had a shot at making some money at the box office.
And that’s what happened. The vast success of Blair Witch meant that seemingly everyone was making their own version. Horror has always been a genre that could maximize profit, with many of the biggest success stories being low budget independent movies that became huge hits. Suddenly films that might have been barely releasable a few years earlier were flooding the market. Terrible sound, lousy acting, murky photography? Doesn’t matter–it’s a found footage movie!
But while many of the found footage films released in the wake of Blair Witch were indeed very bad, there were some great examples too. These were all movies that used the limitations of the format to the story’s benefit. In some cases this meant delivering giant monster movies that put us at ground-level with terrifying beasts, and others it meant creating a sense of claustrophobia, denying the viewer that release and distance that a more traditional horror movie can. So with The Blair Witch Project celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, we’ve taken a look at the best and scariest found footage horror movies ever made. And once you’ve read that, check out GameSpot’s look at the background to Blair Witch and find out why the movie could not be made in the same way today.