More than 15 years ago, a little horror film came from nowhere to burst out on the scene – and we’re talking really little: small budget, small cast, unknown filmmakers. That little film was The Blair Witch Project. Granted, not everybody loves it, but it was a huge hit and earned widespread critical acclaim. It was the story of three young people and their trek into spooky New England woods to document the legend of the Blair Witch.
This year – February 19, 2016, in fact – a new film about a witch in the New England woods is poised to burst on the scene: The Witch. Reviewers who have seen it at film festivals have described it as “spectacularly creepy,” “beautifully made” and “a knockout in terms of visual flair and dread-filled potency.” It struck us, based on reviews and the trailers, that this new film has enough in common with Blair Witch that it may just be headed for similar success.
Here are 11 ways in which the two films are similar, which make us think of 11 Reasons The Witch Will Be The Next Blair Witch Project
10 Cast of mostly unknowns
Using a cast of actors who aren’t huge stars is often a good strategy for a horror movie. Look at the Paranormal Activity franchise and most of the original '80s slasher movies. After all, the unexpected is scary, and you don’t know what to expect from unfamiliar actors.
The stars of The Blair Witch Project, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams, were completely unknown when filming began. That strategy was especially effective for this film because that, combined with the documentary style, convinced some filmgoers that it really was a documentary. The three top-billed stars of The Witch are Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie. They’re certainly not complete unknowns, especially the latter two (Dickie played Lyssa Arryn on Game of Thrones), but are by no means well-known actors that you’re dying to pay your $12 to see in the theater.
9 Maximizing a small budget
The Blair Witch Project was notorious for being one of the most profitable movies ever, making nearly $250 million on an original production budget of something in the neighborhood of $25,000. After marketing and other costs, the final budget is said to be between $500,000 and $750,000. No matter what figure you choose to use, it’s still an enormous profit and a great story of a little movie that went massive.
Similarly, The Witch was made on a budget of an even $1 million. If you take the largest budget figure for Blair Witch above, when you factor inflation that comes out to just over $1 million in 2016 dollars. So both spooky films are in the same playing field in terms of budget – and $1 million is an incredibly low figure for a feature film budget. These are films that don’t rely much on expensive visual effects to create scares, but they’re scary all the same.
8 Sundance darlings
On top of its revolutionary internet campaign, The Blair Witch Project had one big advantage on its side as it headed into theaters: it generated a ton of buzz at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, where independent movies go to gain word of mouth and, hopefully, distribution deals. The film’s success there was helped by the directors handing out “missing persons” flyers for the characters in the film, to raise awareness and perpetuate the notion that the film might actually be a documentary.
The Witch, too, was a big hit at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The filmmakers landed American and European distribution deals, resulting in its imminent release to theatres on February 19. But this film has something Blair Witch didn’t: a Sundance award. Director Robert Eggers won the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category. The movie was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. So all this Sundance buzz can only help The Witch, just as it did Blair Witch.
7 First time writer/directors
Just as The Blair Witch Project may have been helped by using unknown actors, the first-time-directors factor could have worked in its favor as well. It was co-directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, neither of whom had a feature film under their belts. They also wrote the movie together, so it was their chilling vision from the very beginning. While their visual style for the film, with hand-held cameras and the notion of “found footage,” wasn’t quite new, it did usher in a new wave of similarly-styled films.
Robert Eggers was also a rookie when he took on both writing and directing duties for The Witch. He has a reputation for being an all-around visionary as well, based on his short films, which he often wrote, directed and served as both production and costume designer. Judging by the trailers, The Witch looks like a visually captivating film, and surely Eggers had a lot to do with that.
6 Woodsy New England setting
Both The Witch and The Blair Witch Project are set in spooky East Coast woods. Woods are a fantastic setting for a horror movie because of their darkness and claustrophobia and how easy it can be to both get lost and for big bads to hide.
Blair Witch takes place in Burkittsville, Maryland, where not only are the woods inherently dark and spooky, but also said to be haunted and also where a serial killer kidnapped and murdered seven children in the 1940s. And it’s there that the three young filmmakers we follow in the film get hopelessly lost. The Witch appears to use the 17th century New England woods as a place to be taken and, as we mentioned, for the big bad(s) to hide. The trailers show people running and scared in the woods. And both films seem to feature a creepy house/cabin of some sort in the middle of those woods. At the beginning of the full trailer for The Witch, we hear a man refer to the wilderness as the “kingdom of God.” By the end of the trailer, he’s changed his mind. In a deep, foreboding voiceover, he says, “There’s evil in the wood.”
Without getting too deep into spoilers, if you haven’t yet seen The Blair Witch Project, people disappear. For starters, there’s the legend of the murderous Blair Witch herself, and disappearances of children related to her. Then there’s the backstory of Rustin Parr, who is said to have kidnapped children and brought them into the woods to murder them. And other people disappear as well within the main narrative of the film, and nobody knows exactly why or how.
Similarly, the trailer for The Witch shows a young girl playing a game of peek-a-boo with her infant brother, who’s lying on the ground in a burgundy blanket. The girl covers her eyes with her hands, then uncovers them, happily shouting, “Boo!” The baby giggles. Then the girl does the same again. But this time, when she uncovers her eyes, all she sees is that burgundy blanket. The baby is gone. And the camera pans up into the dark woods, suggesting that’s where the baby has been taken.
5 it's Purported to have some basis in fact
The makers of The Blair Witch Project went to great lengths to make it seem like the film was actually a documentary, based on real history, and that the film depicted actual events. As we mentioned earlier, they even handed out “missing persons” flyers for the actors. They even made a couple of fake supplementary documentaries that appeared on TV, which went deeper into the disappearances and legends depicted and mentioned in the movie.
According to reviews, The Witch is said to be based on real 17th century accounts of witchcraft. Back then, of course, Puritan New Englanders had a disturbing obsession with witchcraft and weeding out people, mostly women, they believed were devil-worshiping witches. Children cursed by a witch were said to have strange fits – and that sort of symptom appears to be depicted in the trailer.
4 Legend of a witch from long ago
The plot of The Blair Witch Project hinges on a backstory carefully crafted by the filmmakers and recounted in the movie. Supplementary videos like Curse of the Blair Witch, which aired on TV and are included on the Blu-ray and DVD releases, tell us even more of the history. Briefly, the legend details a witch named Elly Kedward, a woman who was banished from the town in 1785 because she was accused of witchcraft. Her ghost then went on to haunt a local man in the 1940s, forcing him to murder children. We’re then led to wonder if that very same ghost is behind the terrifying events that occur within the film.
While Blair Witch refers to a witch from long ago, The Witch actually takes place during the time of rampant suspicion of witchcraft in America, the 17th century. Is there an actual wicked witch behind the unnerving events depicted in the trailer? Or will it simply be a case of the kind of Puritanical paranoia, with little basis in fact, that actually gripped New England during that time?
3 Preys upon the audience’s fear of the unknown
One of the many reasons for The Blair Witch Project’s effectiveness is how the filmmakers created a slow build to the scares. At first, the characters brush off weird happenings as just that, and nothing to be too scared of. But gradually things get weirder and impossible to explain, and that’s when the chills start to roll across the audience’s spines – and the characters’ fear builds. You’re always left wondering what you’re going to see – but the amazing thing is, you never really see anything. You never see a big bad that’s causing all the trouble; it’s all left to your imagination.
Reviews describe The Witch as having a similar slow-build to the horror, as do the trailers. They depict a family arriving in this new land from Europe, filled with optimism. But slowly, stranger and stranger things happen, and things get darker in all senses of the word as we go deeper into the mysterious woods. One trailer builds to a spine-tingling image, only very briefly seen, of what appears to be naked people dancing at night, around a fire in the woods. A creepy bare foot emerges from the door of a cabin in the woods. And, finally, in the full trailer, we see what from a distance appears to be a weak-looking, mostly naked old hag lying on the floor of a dark place. Will we see more of these images, or will that be left to our imaginations? We’ll say this: there are four actors listed among the cast whose characters are described as witches. But how much will we actually see of them?
2 The unknown causes people to turn on each other
All of the strange occurrences in The Blair Witch Project slowly cause the three main characters to be suspicious of each other, and anger grows. When they first realize they’re lost in the woods, the guys blame Heather for leading them off the map. Mike says of her navigation skills, “I gotta say, I don’t fully trust you.” Later, they’re all miserable and lost and Heather doesn’t want to admit she’s lost, but the guys aren’t talking to her. When they do talk to her, they’re getting more and more upset with her because they believe they’re lost. When the map disappears, Josh and Heather accuse each other of playing head games. As the movie goes on they’re constantly bickering because they just don’t know what’s going on.
The different trailers for The Witch depict many ways in which the family turns on each other due to whatever it is that’s terrorizing them. The young son tells the older daughter that their goat, “Black Phillip,” says she is wicked. In voiceover, what we assume is the mother says to someone, “You’ve cursed this family.” The father appears to be gripped by this paranoia most of all. He seems to have put his wife in a grave right at the edge of the forest, almost like an offering to whatever lurks in there. He looks like he’s violently yanking something (a tooth?) out of the mouth of one of his children. He barricades his children in a barn. And he appears to be pointing a gun at Thomasin, his older daughter, who asks, “Why have you turned against me?” and drags her into the woods.
1 Claustrophobic atmosphere
Anyone who has seen The Blair Witch Project knows how claustrophobic it feels. Thanks to the hand-held, documentary-style camera work, you feel like you’re there, lost in the woods with Heather, Mike and Josh. Because they’re lost with seemingly no way out, even though they’re in an expansive forest, it feels like the walls are closing in. In that iconic scene where Heather is apologizing to the camera, her eyes filled with tears, you’re stuck in that little tent with her, close up on her eyes. And then there’s that final, bone-chilling scene, which we won’t give away.
Watching The Witch’s trailers, that same claustrophobic feeling is there. They’re filled with super-tight close-ups, the tiny homestead is in a clearing surrounded by dark woods, a character appears to have been pushed into a freshly-dug grave, and children are boarded and trapped inside a dark barn. And there’s not much scarier than feeling like you’re trapped in a small space with nowhere to go and evil coming at you.
Can you think of any more reasons to be excited for The Witch? Let us know in the comments!
The Witch will be release in theaters on February 19th, 2016.