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'Blair Witch' turns 20: How a surprise hit horror movie made a Maryland town infamous

Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Entertainment News

BALTIMORE -- Two decades have passed since three budding filmmakers wandered into the western Maryland woods, never to be seen again. Quite the cause for celebration, right?

It is when the three 20-somethings were the central characters in "The Blair Witch Project." The shot-on-the-cheap exercise in cinematic terror, made by two rookie directors working with a trio of unknown actors, came out of nowhere in 1999 to rake in more than $140 million at the U.S. box office (on a reported budget of $60,000) and launch a craze for found-footage horror films. It also briefly turned Maryland, where the movie was both set and shot, into a mecca for horror fans anxious to see for themselves where all the grisly, ghostly happenings captured onscreen supposedly took place.

"We were completely floored," says co-director Eduardo Sanchez, who will be in Frederick on Oct. 18 for an anniversary "Blair Witch" screening at the Weinberg Center for the Arts. "It got to the point where it was just kind of like one ridiculous thing after another happening in our lives. We knew we had kind of a cool project, but we never expected that this movie was going to make even $5 million. We never expected this movie to even be shown in theaters."

His directing partner, Daniel Myrick, was similarly gobsmacked by the movie's success. "We knew we had something that had a chance to be creepy and cool at an indie film level, but breaking into the mainstream? I don't think anybody anticipated it to the degree it ended up."

Purportedly footage shot by the three young filmmakers and discovered after they disappeared, "The Blair Witch Project" chronicles the trio's last days. Having set out to make a film about the Blair Witch, which legend has it lurks in the woods around the Frederick County town of Burkittsville, killing people and devouring their bodies, they encounter strange sounds and mysterious stick figures, get hopelessly lost and discover, to their (and our) growing horror, that the witch's reputation is richly deserved. In the film's most famous (and most relentlessly parodied) scene, one of the three, a terrified Heather (played by actress Heather Donahue; the actors' and characters' names are the same), turns the camera on herself, tearfully apologizing for having put everyone in harm's way like this.

Calling the movie an "exhilarating return to the roots of cinematic horror," former Baltimore Sun movie critic Ann Hornaday, in her July 1999 review, praised "Blair Witch," awarding it four stars and saying it "packs an emotional wallop entirely disproportionate to its meager pedigree." Other critics followed suit (though not everyone: sniffed Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter, "The viewer never glimpses anything more than the shadow of a clever movie"), directors Sanchez and Myrick appeared on the cover of Time (with the cast making the cover of Newsweek), its directors and producers won an Independent Spirit Award.

 

A horror-movie phenom was born. "It's pretty humbling to talk about it, 20 years later," says cast member Michael C. Williams, now 46 and in his 10th year as a middle school guidance counselor in Westchester County, N.Y. "It was an event movie, where people are always telling me the story of where they saw it, what happened right after it, how they went into the woods and they were going camping, or how they lived in a house that was creepy, and they never went to the basement again. People remember it as an event, which is pretty neat to be a part of."

Myrick and Sanchez agree that "The Blair Witch Project" arose from their shared love of horror movies. As students in the film program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla., they were looking for a film project when they attended a preview screening of 1991's "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare," an entry in the"Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise. Certainly, the pair thought, they could do better than this.

"It was really just kind of silly," says Sanchez, who grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. "It wasn't like a horror movie that was meant to scare you. It was fun, we liked it, but we came home and were like, 'Man, they don't really make horror movies the way they used to when we were younger.'"

Agrees Myrick, a Florida native who grew up in Sarasota, "We were coming out of film school at a time where, you know, horror was becoming pretty self-referential and almost comedic. We wanted to make something that was actually scary."

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