“We faked it because it’s true!”
Nearly two decades after The Blair Witch Project chilled audiences with its shaky-cam dread, a new sequel has arrived that is sadly just as generic and unimaginative as the countless found footage copycats the original spawned. 2016’s Blair Witch isn’t the first attempt at a sequel to the 1999 horror film — 2000 saw the much-maligned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 come and go in the blink of an eye. Say what you will about Book of Shadows, at least it was trying to do something with the material.
The same can’t really be said for Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch. Both a sequel and a reboot of sorts, Wingard’s film, written by frequent collaborator Simon Barrett, follows James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of Blair Witch Project’s Heather. Since Heather and her fellow filmmakers from the first film were never found after they ventured off into the woods surrounding Burkittsville, James has never found closure. He’s spent years obsessing over what happened to his sister, and when some new footage pops-up that appears to show a ghostly image of Heather reflected in a mirror in that same abandonded house from the first film’s climax, James, his girlfriend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), their two friends (Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott), and two Burkittsville locals (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) head into those damned woods armed with enough film equipment to make the paltry two cameras the characters bought in 1999 feel practically medieval. It’s not long before witchy woman Elly Kedward is making her presence known with stick-men, rock piles and time-lapses.
Blair Witch started off as a secret. Originally the film was sold as a mysterious horror flick called The Woods before being revealed at Comic-Con this year to be a Blair Witch Project sequel in disguise. The secret nature of the project made it seem very exciting, similar to what happened earlier this year with the Cloverfield spin-off 10 Cloverfield Lane. But while 10 Cloverfield Lane took the Cloverfield brand and did something new and exciting, Blair Witch is happy to just run with almost the same exact formula from the first film beat for beat. The kids go into the woods; they mess around; they get lost; bad things happen. There’s nothing wrong with following a familiar formula in approaching a franchise — after all, last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed did pretty much the same thing. But Blair Witch falters because it doesn’t seem to respect or even care about its source material the way those two films did.
Whatever you may think of The Blair Witch Project (and if you’re one of those people who thinks it sucks, guess what, you’re wrong!), one of the elements that made it so unique was how subtle it was in its horror. One of the biggest complaints with Blair Witch Project by many bone-heads was that the film never really showed its audience anything — all the horror was off-screen. But that was exactly what made the 1999 film so powerful. That was a film that built its dread in increments, and played with its supernatural elements in a believable fashion. A big part of the marketing for Blair Witch Project was the false-assumption that it was a true story — populated with non-actors, it was easy to believe that this could have really happened; that these three kids really could’ve got lost in the woods and were never seen again. This couldn’t be recreated for Blair Witch, of course — the cat’s out of the bag and we know it’s not real. But there’s never one moment where Blair Witch even seems like it’s attempting to feel authentic. Not once do we get the sense that the actors on the screen are real people; they’re all playing a part.
If you’re one of the people who hated how subtle Blair Witch Project was with its horror, you might indeed get a kick out of Wingard’s take on the material, as subtlety is not in this film’s vocabulary. Almost every single scene of Blair Witch involves a big, dumb jump-scare; sometimes, more than one. It gets so ridiculous after a while that one character, after someone harmless walks up quickly behind her in the dark and gives her a scare, mutters, “Can everyone please stop doing this?” This is a cheeky bit of humor, and the smart thing would’ve been for Wingard, a talented filmmaker who helmed the endlessly clever The Guest, to drop the jump-scares after he has someone reference them. Instead, he doubles-down on them.
Blair Witch throws some neat new tech into the mix — the characters all have ear-mounted cameras that are perfectly stabilized, as opposed to the motion-sickness-inducing cinematography of the original. They’ve also brought along a drone camera to get some aerial photography of the woods. But Wingard and Barrett don’t do anything with this new tech beyond setting it up. Perhaps this is their way of commenting that no matter how advanced the camera equipment gets it’ll always be useless in the face of ancient evil. Or perhaps they just didn’t have enough time to get into it more since they had a jump-scare quota to fill.
Blair Witch is fun in the dumb, quick-scare sense. If you see it with a packed audience, you might get a kick out of hearing them all shriek as one loud noise follows another to goose the characters and audience alike. But these moments aren’t scary — they’re startling. There’s a huge difference between fear and shock. The Blair Witch Project wanted to scare you; to instill in you a sense of hopeless, ever-increasing dread. Blair Witch is content to simply sneak up behind you and yell “BOO!” in your ears, then giggle like a childish jerk after you get pissed-off. There’s no doubt an audience for this type of movie, and I hope they have fun. I’ll stick with the original.
Blair Witch is playing at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.