Director: Adam Wingard Starring: Callie Hernandez, James Allen McCune Running Time: 89 minutes
In 1999, The Blair Witch Project was released amidst a massive wave of hype, propelled by early attempts at viral marketing and a ‘based on a true story’ flimflam that caught viewers offguard. With more story around the film than in it and a loose structure much closer to actual found footage than the genre staple tends to be today, it really was a project, a different kind of horror than audiences had seen before. However, audiences often don’t want different and the backlash was swift and the rushed and disastrous sequel Book of Shadows did little to help. Nearly two decades later, new sequel Blair Witch has flown in deliberately under the radar, filmed under the misdirect title The Woods. Blair Witch frequently feels like the kind of film viewers thought the original was offering, which should satisfy some but those who were happy with what they got first time around might leave disappointed.
Blair Witch sees paramedic Jason Donaghue motivated by a grainy internet video to journey into the spooky Black Hills woods, hoping to find some trace of his long lost sister Heather (she of the snotty confession in the first film). He’s accompanied by friends who, in addition to looking and acting like they were just off to the side of the screen on One Tree Hill for years, also include film students who want to document the search on their flashy tech, including ear cameras, web cams and a drone. Joined by some local weirdos who seem way too into the old legends of the Blair Witch, they set off camping and everything goes fine and Jason finds his sister and no witches get involved. Or not.
Though the plots of the two films are essentially the same, Blair Witch takes a different approach to scares than its predecessor. What was interesting (if undeniably alienating) about The Blair Witch Project was how it prioritised more basic fears than horror movies are usually interested in; fear of getting lost, of having no control, of being suddenly alone. Its forest setting tapped into something primal in audiences, aided by a low budget and improvised performances that helped it feel much closer to actual found footage than most of the films in that genre that have come in the years since. Blair Witch too rarely pushes those same buttons, typically getting scares from the more usual jump scares and gore.
Frequently the film feels like it received notes from the studio to avoid the elements that caused backlash to its predecessor. “It’s boring” – add jump scares and a body count. “The characters are stupid jerks” – the characters are beautiful, flat archetypes. “How dare they act like it was real” – don’t even try to come across as real. More characters means more cameras which means more cuts, keeping the audience one safer step away from the reality of the film. Now that its a franchise and small details like piles of rocks, twig dolls and time loss have become established rules it may not be possible to put the cat back into the bag as far as atmosphere goes, but too often it’s just like watching Paranormal Activity: Camping Edition.
The more conventional approach is disappointing considering the talent involved behind the camera. Director and writer Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are responsible for two of the more fun and fresh genre films of recent years in You’re Next and The Guest, but its only towards the end that they really sink their teeth into the material. The cabin-set climax ramps up the scares considerably, making the jump scares actually effective and assaulting the senses unrelentingly. Its a great sequence but its a long slog through the woods to get there. It may be just enough for newcomers and detractors from 1999 to find Blair Witch worthwhile viewing, but in a strong year for horror too often it struggles to notably distinguish itself from its competition or its source.