The Bum Rap of Blair Witch

By  · Published on September 21st, 2016

Exploring the unreasonably high expectations of trying to recreate the spectacle of The Blair Witch Project.

Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are the Batman & Robin of horror movies, out to save to genre from itself by doing things differently. So, when the shocking and exciting news broke that their next project was a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, it was assuredly a slam dunk, yes?

Well, by most reports, no. Blair Witch has a thirty-something percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a 40-something on Metacritic and finished third at the box office of its opening weekend. Wingard and Barrett even exchanged dourly humorous jabs on Twitter in a display of cathartic self-deprecation over the mixed reception and disappointing box-office returns of their Blair Witch movie.

I’m no box office analyst. In fact, I’m not even sure how they calculate box office totals with such accuracy (extensive Googling on the topic reveals that it has something to do with algorithms, but that sounds like hooey). But I am both a horror fan and movie critic, so I’ll focus my attention on the middling-at-best critical reception of the Caped Crusaders’ latest.

It’s a fine line filmmakers toe when they make a follow-up to the classic. In a way, they’re inviting themselves to be compared to the original – and all that implies. Almost always, this is a completely valid way to look at a film. Movies should never be looked at in a vacuum, pretending that other, potentially better films don’t exist. That being said, The Blair Witch Project is an impossible standard to meet.

Blair Witch Review

And I don’t mean that because the film is so good that no one could ever make another horror film or found footage film that can match up to the OG. While I’m not contrarian enough to claim it’s a bad film, I also can’t hold it up as a bastion of horror cinema. However, the initial spectacle of The Blair Witch Project will never again be achieved by a found footage film.

After all, how could it? The Blair Witch Project was really the first viral-marketing campaign of cinema, and, given the budding popularity of the internet in 1999, it was far more effective than such a campaign would have been today. The film had a website and a mockumentary, none of the actors made media appearances around the film’s release date, and Found Footage was a virtually unheard-of technique. A much more gullible population was then convinced that The Blair Witch Project could actually be real, which, by most accounts, skyrocketed its box office returns and cultural impact.

And yet, you can read headlines right now about how Blair Witch couldn’t match the spirit of the original. My response: did you expect it to? I know Wingard and Barrett are talented filmmakers, but did anyone honestly think they could make Found Footage believable again? The success and reverence of The Blair Witch Project is inextricable from the way it captivated an entire generation of movie-goers with its smart and innovative marketing, using an unfamiliar cinematic technique. Since that couldn’t possibly be replicated, Blair Witch is just a movie. Many reviewers have noted just that, but here’s where my assessment differs: it’s OK to be “just a movie.”

Granted, if you want to argue, for example, that the new Blair Witch revealed too much in comparison with the original, taking away the air of mystery that helped make the story so compelling, I can’t easily counter you. And that’s not the only issue Blair Witch encounters.

On that note, I’m not arguing that Wingard and Barrett have crafted another home run, but, when you look at Blair Witch as just a movie, it holds up. I look at the scene where Lisa is crawling through a tunnel a perfect microcosm for the movie itself: well-filmed, gripping, stingingly emotional at times, subtly frightening, but, ultimately, pointless. To me, though, that’s still a pretty good movie. Given that, and how it plays into and expands upon the mythology of the Blair Witch, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after all the dust has settled, Blair Witch develops a cult-following of apologists.

Given that I obviously think Blair Witch has gotten a bum rap, I’ll undoubtedly be robing up and reaching for the Kool-Aid right along with them.

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