When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it was among many a horror phenomenon over the near half-century since 1968 that marked the division in horror followings straight down the line into two factions. On the one side was the moviegoers that favors quiet, patient atmospheric scares and let themselves sink into feeling creeped out that almost certainly fueled the word-of-mouth that made The Blair Witch Project the most profitable movie at the time of its release with the highest return-on-investment a movie could accomplish at the time. Despite really falling more into line with this side of horror movies, I actually was not as fond of The Blair Witch Project (though I’ve since warmed to it) as I was just admiring of what it accomplished for horror movies – on top of being the movie to bring “found footage” into the mainstream and have studios realize just how lucrative the style was even at its lowest points, it was an impressive manner of immersive storytelling largely through skeletal mythos and a bare narrative (I was only 7 when it came out and thus my peers were all around that age, but I of course very much recall hearing so many people claim that the movie was real.). Nevertheless, there is a much louder amount of praise for it than my meager “it’s fine but I’m not rushing to re-watch it”.
And still louder than my middle-of-the-road attitude is the amount of people who are not in the slightest moved by The Blair Witch Project eager to call it out as a movie where nothing happens. I don’t think I need to say I disagree with that attitude, though I sympathize with a few of their points. And these folks seem to favor more of a sensory overload in their horror, a visceral shaking of terror. Not necessarily lacking in taste in patience, but there needs to be an endgame, a climax, an escalation without restraint. And I think that’s what director Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s second sequel to Project, simply titled Blair Witch, falls into. It’s a movie that, like Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, uses the position of a sequel to act as a defacto remake in baldly revisiting plot beats, but is also more excited to get right to being a much more overtly spookier film than its predecessor. Given that my personal favorite horror films are Suspiria and Night of the Living Dead, I can’t say I don’t also love those movies as well, but in the case of Blair Witch, it works at one very important point for it to work for me, and otherwise comes across as either annoying or silly or both.
But let’s get through those plot beats Blair Witch borrows shall we as well as its connection to Project: As told via the footage found on memory cards in the Burkittsville Woods in 2014, James Donahue (James Allen McCune) has finally found footage recently released on-line that possibly would tell him what happened to his sister, Heather Donahue – who was among the three individuals whose disappearance is documented in Project. Accompanying him are his childhood best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), while their film student friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) who transparently has a crush on James is recruited by James to record their journey and findings into those very same woods again. Reluctantly, they bring along the local couple who claimed to know where the footage was found Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) and you can expect to know none of them are coming out of the woods by the end of the movie.
Now, I don’t exactly think anybody really asked for this sequel’s existence (probably why they waited until Comic-Con 2016 to fire the hype cannon by revealing Blair Witch‘s existence after shooting it under the name of “The Woods”, compressing and concentrating all excitement to a two-month period), but I’d like to think they’re aiming for fans of The Blair Witch Project at the minimum (I don’t think the chained-up basement dweller who liked Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 will be allowed to re-enter society anytime soon, let alone a movie theater), fans of first-person camera films as a projected audience. I can’t think of a worse move to show contempt for that very style of filmmaking than doing everything you can to deal with the ramifications of that style and Blair Witch does that from the very start by giving every single character a camera, in some cases two. And the result is a movie that essentially is unchallenging to itself, allowing itself to be conventionally framed and edited but the shitty cinematography, sound design (though that’s not the case here thankfully – the sound mixing rivals You’re Next in my book), and kind of mediocre acting all around (I get the feeling that – save for the bland James – they’re all meant to be dislikable in some way, Lane is unambiguously the most odious of the bunch, but then why should I care for them) don’t give the film the rawness the style dishes in spades so much as it just has an excuse because the context is a bunch of cameras.
As for the overt scare moments… well, like I said at the top, the film takes a method I don’t really take kindly to: toss your camera around (almost always with the batteries in the flashlight failing meaning you will get frames of just nothing) and be as fucking loud as possible. It’s just a much more annoying version of the “show nothing” manner people blamed The Blair Witch Project only this time it leaves me with a fucking migraine and not one of the two people with more than one camera (Lisa sports a DSLR as well as a drone – WHAT?! A drone?! They don’t even do anything with except steal establishing shots of the same spot three times – and Lane has a DV Camera) dare to ditch their camera like any normal person would, yet can’t bother to also shoot in a manner that doesn’t feel like a bad trip to Six Flags.
Thankfully, it’s not all a complete wreck and the final act of the film involving a very familiar location ends up being a hair-raising trip into darkened hallways and doors with just the right amount of just missed visibility to every little noise the remaining characters hear (it helps that not only have the numbers whittled significantly by this point, but the movie sticks to one perspective for long enough to get the atmosphere and frenzy of each character). In all its blue-ish lightning punctuated lighting, just looking at a door long enough gets unnerving enough to wire me up. It is easily the best thing I’ve seen out of Adam Wingard yet (a filmmaker I otherwise have literally no care for) and if it’s still just a lesser version of Radio Silence’s section of the found footage anthology V/H/S (of which Wingard directed the frame narrative and so certainly saw), that doesn’t entirely take away from the film. Plus the Radio Silence sequence doesn’t have a moment nearly as clautrophobic as Lisa’s imprisonment.
This final section will be getting into vague spoiler territory and if you are still interested in the film after all I’ve said, by all means, you can quit reading now. I’m just going to point out how the film ends on a silly note regardless of the craft of the finale (and silliness is constant in Blair Witch – Lane is kind of meant to be a second antagonist but he’s so weak looking that it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be beaten up at any second, there are big versions of the stick figures now, it’s just completely wacky at points that undercut the idea that we’re meant to be scared), but the biggest one is…
… the way Barrett interjects his own ideas into the mythology. Namely the temporal element. For one, time travel doesn’t seem to belong in the earthy groundedness of the Blair Witch any more than Lisa’s drone does, but it also opens up a new can of worms. We’re meant to understand that Lane and Talia have been experiencing time at a vastly more accelerated pace than the other three and we know that the footage on Lane’s camera has been recovered and that it’s miraculously had enough battery life to work for at least a year (given the beard he sports around the end). At no point does the film seem interested to alternate and see how the time shifts look from both sides of the schism. As well as the problem with giving everybody a camera is that there’s certainly no way ALL of their cameras had been shut off at the moment of their abduction/death (and if they were… how would the footage be recovered so easily). The abrupt ending doesn’t feel earned (although it was easy to see it coming this time around) as The Blair Witch Project before it… we saw the battery was close to death. But here, it just stops. Suddenly the footage that all the headset cameras were sure to get of the Witch doing her deeds with the characters are not interesting enough to be edited in, all that sound and fury and noise was just for nothing.
I don’t know. In addition to hating the fact that it’s found footage, Blair Witch doesn’t know how to make its specialness fit into the logistics of itself. It doesn’t know how justify itself as a movie. And it doesn’t know how to go full throttle on its attempt to be more intense and visceral than The Blair Witch Project. I don’t think anybody particularly needed to make this movie – not Wingard, who has probably been sick of the found footage style by his career (or maybe not). Not Barrett. Not Lionsgate. And I can’t imagine fans of The Blair Witch Project being amused, nor non-fans being convinced to be into the franchise. Maybe we should have left this movie wherever we found it.