Similar to the genius marketing of the 1999 found footage horror phenomenon, The Blair Witch Project, the new belated sequel – simply titled – Blair Witch is something that just came out of nowhere. Coming from director, Adam Wingard and writer, Simon Barrett, the duo behind recent cult horror hits You’re Next and The Guest, the project was shot in secret under the title, The Woods, which was the name used for the promotion until the big reveal at this past San Diego Comic Con that it was actually a direct sequel to the original film.
The film ignores the other “sequel” The Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and follows the brother of Heather from the original film, his name is James (James Allen McCune) and he is the subject of Lisa’s (Callie Hernandez) documentary as he tries to find out what happened to his sister out in the woods where she disappeared. Tagging along is James’ childhood friend, Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter’s girlfriend, Ashley (Corbin Reid), and their guides, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry).
Blair Witch is a bit of an oddity because as you watch you wouldn’t have expected that this is an Adam Wingard/Simon Barrett joint. Though I wasn’t a fan of You’re Next, I loved The Guest and it easily cements them as among the most promising, interesting, genre-savvy filmmakers working today. Blair Witch doesn’t necessarily feel as subversive or as interesting as their involvement would imply. And it points to what is probably the most disappointing element of the film, which is the fact that it is essentially the exact same film as the original, except bigger and louder.
It unfortunately follows the trend that plagues most reboots nowadays, which is bringing all the familiar elements that an audience will recognize, and simply doing more of it. This year alone, we’ve seen that problem show up in films like Ghostbusters, Independance Day: Resurgence, and even with last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The plotting and escalation of the original film is followed here almost beat for beat, and simply given an extra umph. It’s littered with jump scares, thankfully not accompanied with an obnoxious musical stinger. And hey, if you want a fun drinking game, take a shot whenever someone sneaks up on whoever is holding the camera, you likely won’t last long. It just doesn’t feel as inspired or as ambitious as I had hoped. As bad as Book of Shadows was, I can say that it at least tried to do something different, it wasn’t going to be satisfied by just doing the same thing again. Blair Witch seemed like it felt obligated to undo the damage of The Book of Shadows by essentially repeating what worked the first time.
As bad as that might sound, it’s precisely why having people as talented as these filmmakers tackling this project can bring so much more despite dealing with material that offers so little promise. While the film borders on going against everything that made the original so interesting in the first place (mood, slow pacing, minimalist/borderline experimental form of horror), it’s saved by some really well honed craftsmanship. While the original was more of an atmospheric slow burn, this is a pure thrill ride. The sense of escalation is well paced, the tension is palpable and in terms of found footage, it’s captures the sense of authenticity that made the original so effective, while also making the most of what the format can offer probably since Chronicle. It becomes so relentless, especially in the final act, that it does become easy to forgive it for it’s otherwise lack of bold narrative choices.
Though one thing that it does recapture well from the original is the use of lore. Even if restraint is a word I wouldn’t use to describe most of the film, they still apply it when it comes to the lore. The original captures the weird sensibilities East coast folklore where man becomes involved with something beyond their understanding. Blair Witch does add a few more details to some of the things mentioned in the original, but it does not explain everything. It allows for the confusion to sink in and works it into the scares and the buildup. You experience the same confusion as the characters and it makes each scene that much more intense because you don’t have the answers to what’s going on. It’s the one thing that really made the scares that much more effective and it’s the sort of smart decision that you could only get out of filmmakers like Wingard and Barrett.
The performances are solid all around, the production design is great and the sound design and editing in particular are astounding. And I with that, I don’t just mean the loud jolts that come by every now and then, but also the small moments and overwhelming dread that it builds. There’s a quiet oppressiveness that the film absolutely nails, so that when it comes to the loud moments and the shockers, they work on a deeply visceral level since they took the time to put the audience in the mindset of the characters. Even though I still take issues with the simplicities and retreads, the talent of the people involved are able to elevate the material seemingly with ease, and it makes it that much of a better experience.
While I hesitate to say Blair Witch is great, I think it is a pleasant surprise overall in just how it executes what sounds like a lazy rehash on paper. It’s basically to this franchise what Riddick was to that series. Simon Barrett’s detailed, but economical characterization combined with Adam Wingard’s ability to make a grounded, but visceral experience is what makes Blair Witch commendable and a step above most horror films, not just those in the found footage subgenre (that nightmare inducing final act alone is worth the price of admission). As a piece of franchise filmmaking, I don’t see how much more you can mine out of this particular mythology, but as far as funhouse horror goes, Blair Witch is a fun, exhilarating, and gleefully creepy ride that works best on the biggest, loudest screen. Though, I gotta say, James could’ve saved himself a lot of trouble. All he had to do was a Google search and he’d find Heather, who now deals in medical marijuana. 70/100