"In October of 1994, three student film-makers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found." So says the title card, which dissolves to show the trio (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard) preparing for their trip, which they hope will explain the legend of the Blair Witch, a mythical, murderous figure said to haunt the woods.
With the locals offering assistance, anecdotes and warnings, they enter the woods, and as darkness falls a slow-burning fear begins to take root. Bizarrely marked trees and signs of ritual slaughter fuel their insecurity, and as the friends begin to turn against one another, they ignore the true danger that awaits them...
With a $22,000 budget, Myrick and Sanchez's debut film was always dependent on creative inspiration, and together with Sam Barber, they developed a backstory that would trigger the unique and rarely invoked power of cinema: mass delusion. Claiming documentary status, the three producers built a seminal website to propagate the legend and drip-feed an increasingly curious audience. Acts of genius - such as listing the three actors as "missing, presumed dead" on the Internet Movie Database - gave the film an irresistible snuff-movie quality that ecstatic festival crowds devoured.
Word of mouth replaced conventional hype (which the distributor, Artisan, was unable to finance), and a staggered release helped build anticipation around the world. Critics and moviegoers applauded the jagged camera and low-budget intimacy (predating the thirst for reality TV). This was achieved by giving the cast a scant outline of the project, starving them on location and ordering the crew to ambush them in order to provoke a response (the close-up on Donahue's eye remains one of the greatest poster shots ever).
But Myrick and Sanchez's illusion didn't end there: it later became clear that the cast shot most of the footage and improvised the entire script, but would benefit little from the cash bonanza that followed. Sam Barber felt the same way and later sued his former partners to get greater recognition. He won.