1999’s The Blair Witch Project was both a blessing and a curse for horror fans. It deserves credit for putting a new spin on the genre, for delivering some legitimately terrifying sequences, and for playing a smart marketing game. On the flip-side though it also opened the floodgates to a steady stream of incompetent, rarely scary found footage films that continue to be churned out even seventeen years later.
2016’s Blair Witch is far from incompetent, but it is a lazy retread of beats and elements horror fans already know by heart with only a couple unsettling moments in the plus column.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s film is a direct sequel to the original – it ignores Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 while cherry-picking details from the mythology explored in various Blair Witch-related offshoots (and adding a few tidbits of its own) – but aside from a strong production design and the name itself it does very little to stand apart from the found footage (ff hereafter) crowd.
The story is simple. James (James Allen McCune) lost his sister Heather fifteen years ago in a very public way. She and her friends disappeared in Maryland’s Black Hills forest leaving only some disturbing footage behind – the footage of course being what we know as The Blair Witch Project – and the appearance of new video online sends him back into the woods in search of her. He’s joined by his film-student friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), his best friend Peter (Brandon Scott), and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid). They meet up with the young local couple, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who claim to have found the new footage, and the six head into the forest hoping to find answers to the legend of the witch, the disappearances, and the deaths.
Barrett’s script makes few upgrades to the typical ff formula including the addition of earpiece cameras and an acknowledgement in the opening text that the footage we’re about to see has been “assembled” rather than merely found, but each of these comes with their own problems.
The earpieces are a smart addition and eliminate questions as to why characters would be holding a camera and filming at various times, but their location might leave you wondering why the girls’ hair never seems to cover the lens or how certain close-ups are captured. The film doesn’t share who it is that assembled the footage (and it doesn’t need to), but it seems odd they’d loop dialogue across scenes and add “scary” sound cues but not make an effort to remove any of the abundant pops, buzzes, and static sounds that all ff videos seem required to make.
It’s an uninspired experience for too much of its running time, but that would be an acceptable price to pay if the end result was frightening or scary. Sadly, aside from one highly claustrophobic sequence and a briefly unnerving glimpse of “something” this is a movie devoid of scares. Shaky-cam and loud sound cues don’t help, and jump scares that depend on a friendly face popping into frame out of nowhere – an impressive ninja-like feat seeing as the sounds of these people moving quick through a forest are the only sounds the cameras repeatedly fail to pick up – grow tiresome from the first of many such instances.
The rawness of the original film – a big part of what makes it so terrifying at times – is absent here, and instead we get a movie and a world that feel produced and designed rather than simply stumbled into. The cast does good work with Hernandez in particular standing out as the story builds towards its inevitable conclusion.
One quick observation – this isn’t really a *spoiler* but if such things concern you just skip to the next paragraph – there are only six characters in the film, but the trope of killing off the black guy first feels like a cliche Wingard/Barrett would know well enough to avoid. In that same vein, the only characters here who are combative and quick to violence against their non-aggressive fellow campers are the black couple. It’s doubtful the script made mention of race meaning both the trope and the stereotype are instead most likely the result of casting without connecting the dots, but it’s an unfortunate outcome all the same.
The filmmakers’ previous two films, The Guest and You’re Next, are fun thrillers that play with genre conventions by telling stories slightly askew of expectations. They’re told with style, wit, and energy that amount to a voice uniquely their own. That voice is sorely missed here. Ultimately, the scariest thing about Blair Witch is that it’s going to be Wingard and Barrett’s highest-grossing film to date – hopefully that won’t be enough to derail them from pursuing the kind of fun, creative thrills they crafted previously. Because seriously, I’m still hoping for a crossover pitting You’re Next’s Sharni Vinson against The Guest’s Dan Stevens… and now you are too.