Blair Witch review

Reviews
September 19, 2016 by James O'Connor

They found more footage.

I never loved The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s ultra-low-budget horror flick that popularised the “found footage” subgenre, but I also never forgot it.

I have seen the movie only once, on DVD shortly after its release, but the details are still surprisingly vivid in my head. The ending, in particular, never left me -- how frantic and terrified those characters were, how scary that house was, that image of the man in the corner, facing the wall. The movie’s greatest strength, on reflection, was its mundanity, the controlled, steady ramp-up of its horror so that those final turns hit extra hard.

Blair Witch, the first sequel since 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (which is exactly as bad as you’ve heard, if not worse, and is wisely ignored by this film), is very clearly coming from a place of love, bordering on reverence.

Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett (who previously collaborated on the fun horror-deconstruction You’re Next and the brilliant ever-escalating throwback thriller flick The Guest) are clearly fans of Project, and have filled their sequel with callbacks, explanations and nods.

At first, this is thrilling -- both Blair Witch Project sequels have positioned the original tape as a shocking artefact, and in the age of YouTube and user-generated content is makes total sense that there would be new footage from the woods, further analysis of the original tapes, and fanatics who have done their research. But as the film’s sextet of young adults start to really experience the horrors of Blair Witch’s woods, it becomes clear that the filmmakers, for all their admiration, weren’t really sure how to follow up on the original.

The movie follows six people -- four friends and two Blair Witch truthers, with an even gender split and some surprisingly nuanced pre-established interpersonal relationships -- as they venture into the woods with ear-mounted Bluetooth cameras, drones, and handhelds.

One of the women, Lisa, is making a documentary about her college buddy, James, whose sister was one of the three main subjects of the original Blair Witch Project video. A new video from the original film’s woods emerges on YouTube, in which James believes he can see his sister for a few frames, and so they -- along with two close friends and the excited strangers who found and uploaded the tapes - wander in to seek the truth.

This is a tremendous set-up, and the time gap between it and the original does the film many favours. It’s believable that these people, who were children when the original tapes released, would not fear the woods. They’re a smarter, less irritating bunch than the trio from the original film, realising that they’ve made a mistake after the very first night when things get a little weird, well before shit properly hits the fan. There’s only one character who comes across as unlikeable, and their arc is interesting enough for it to not be an issue.

But whereas The Blair Witch Project slowly ramped up the unease and tension, Blair Witch simply goes bonkers midway through, having seemingly grown impatient with metering out dread and building to something. The first twenty or so minutes in the woods are quite chilling, paying homage (according to my interpretation) to Junji Ito’s legendary horror comic Uzumaki in how space and time are distorted. Little details creep in that amount to some fairly effective character development, and the found footage aesthetic never feels overbearing or out of place as it often did in the original.

But they take it too far.  The second half, for all its neat low-budget tricks and cool ideas, never really feels like a proper continuation of the legacy The Blair Witch Project established, making the forest too omnipotent, too destructive and openly hostile. The little nods to the original film turn into full-on attempts to explain what is going on, and there’s a decision that Wingard makes -- one that I don’t want to spoil, and one that will likely divide audiences -- which I think was a huge mistake.

The plot grows unfocused, too. The carefully-established character relationships fall by the wayside in favour of lots of yelling and running. One character goes off and experiences their own, very out-of-place Cronenberg body horror plot, and major moments are strangely downplayed. The original film’s brilliant ending influences how this sequel plays out, but each reference or homage to it produces diminishing returns.

A big part of The Blair Witch Project’s appeal was how much was left unexplained. This is, generally speaking, a good rule for horror -- the origin story explaining why the villain is acting the way they’re acting will almost always make that villain less terrifying. A lot of the franchise’s mystique washes away with Blair Witch, but at least it’s washed away with some real style. The cinematography is consistently pretty interesting, and there’s a brilliantly terrifying sequence right towards the end that has nothing to do with the supernatural. For the most part, though, I found myself curiously bored by Blair Witch once it started trying to actively terrify me, despite the obvious talents of the cast and crew.

Blair Witch has been lambasted so far, and I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as the reception is making it out to be. But it’s proof, I’d say, that The Blair Witch Project -- one of the most influential horror films ever made - didn’t really need a sequel.

This is a film with its heart mostly in the right place, and which was, perhaps, damned regardless of whether it did or didn’t copy what made the original so successful. I’m on-the-fence about it, which is probably the best I could have reasonably hoped for. It’s not a disaster by any means, but I doubt Blair Witch will stick with me for as long as the original has.