In 1999, a little movie, made by first time feature directors and newbie performers and costing about the price of a mid sized SUV shattered box office records, and did for the woods what Jaws did for ocean waters. To this day, The Blair Witch Project remains the most terrified I’ve ever been sitting in a movie theater, and nothing else has even come all that close. Just thinking about that experience, what remains with me still is that feeling of sliding deeper into my seat while digging my fingers into the armrests so hard that I left bruises due to the sinking feeling of the inevitable. I’ve watched at least a thousand horror movies before that summer night in 1999 and at least a thousand since, and Blair Witch gathered all the things the seasoned horror fan had trained themselves to look for when watching a movie and tossed them straight out the window. To this day, despite knowing exactly what I’m in for when I pop the blu ray into the Xbox, I still can’t help but scan my eyes across all the negative space on screen, waiting for that momentary payoff that serves as a pressure valve, allowing all the pent up tension a quick release before the pressure cooker begins its slow build up again. The brilliance of Edurado Sanchez and Daniel Myrick with The Blair Witch Project is they never offer the audience the courtesy of that release.
All of that long winded introduction is to say that followup, brought to you by the stellar filmmaking tandem of writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingaard, The Blair Witch, is a different beast altogether. While the duo manage to stay true to the spirit of the original film, especially as compared to the colossal misfire that was Book of Shadows, and inject some fascinating new elements to the mythology of the series, this new Blair Witch feels very much like a 2016 studio horror film. If the first film was a marathon, moving along at a steady, unyielding clip, then this new film can best be described as an all out sprint, moving from one moment to the next as fast as it can.
The new film connects to the original by way of James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of the doomed Heather. When James finds a video posted online that suggests his sister might still be alive, he is determined to head out to the woods in Burkittsville to try and find her. In doing so he enlists his best friend Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), and Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a student filmmaker tagging along to document James’ journey and a convenient plot device which allows the for the “found footage” format.
James’ first stop in Burkittsville is the ramshackle home of Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry). The small town’s resident hippy, hesher weirdos are the ones responsible for finding the tape that might provide a clue to Heather’s fate. Lane will only agree to take James and his traveling party to the spot he found the tape if they allow he and Talia to tag along. Despite the group misgivings about venturing into the unknown with a pair of oddballs, they have no choice but to give in.
I’m sure you can guess what happens next. Despite almost two decades worth of improvements in tracking technology by way of GPS, camera equipped drones, and high powered walkie-talkies, James and pals find themselves woefully underprepared for what awaits them in the woods. Barely an hour into their hike, Lisa cuts her barefoot on a rock, and the ugly gash soon becomes infected, leaving her a feverish mess. The group find themselves walking in circles, winding up at the same campsite they left hours ago. Sent up in the air, the camera equipped drone reports back nothing but an endless stretch of treetops, showing no signs of the road despite the group only being a mile or two into the woods.
All of those misfortunes pale in comparison to what awaits them when the sun sets.
The greatest success in the new film stem from the new ideas Barrett’s script fuses with the existing mythology. The staples of the brand: Coffin Rock, Rustin Parr, the legend of Elly Kedward, all of these elements are touched on, but they give way to some intriguing new elements. The best of these new ideas is one where the woods itself exists outside our own space and time continuum and as such it can play by its own set of rules. For example, when James’ and company kick Lane and Talia out of their group for being creepy, lying weirdoes, the two groups meet up again hours later. Except that it’s only been hours later for James and his friends. Lane and Talia claim to have been lost in the woods for more than five days and their bedraggled appearance lends evidence to that claim. In fact, while time seems to move in a linear fashion for the initial group of friends, the few moments we catch up with Lane he seems to have aged a number of years in a matter of hours. After the second night in the woods, the sun just stops coming up, and the second half of the film plays out in near blackout conditions.
The irony of “The Woods” serving as the secret title Barrett and Wingaard used during filming is the pair shuttle the legend of Elly Kedward off to the side and allow for the forest itself to be the source of all the bad juju the characters suffer. The Blair Witch herself is a small part of a larger tapestry of the evil, terror and misfortune that befalls the characters. By the third act the feels much less like a follow up to Sanchez’ and Myricks film than it does a feature length installment of a V/H/S entry. By allowing themselves to tap into the illogical bounds that serves as the V/H/S calling card, the duo give the audience a feeling that anything can happen at anytime. While this doesn’t always work-there’s one brief moment that feels more at home under an alien invaders auspice, the bizarre qualities of Blair Witch can be damn entertaining when they hit.
If the Blair Witch Project was about the terrifying feeling of being lost in the woods with no provisions and no idea how to find your way home, then the Blair Witch concerns itself with the more visceral terror of being unrelentingly hunted and chased down. By the time James and company wake up in the middle of the night to the terrifying sounds of unseen children’s laughter all around them and the sight of the familiar rock cairns and stick figure men, the film becomes an all out attack on the audience’s senses. Trees crash, voices cry out in the dark, feet go sprinting into the blackness with the camera pointed at the ground and characters cry themselves hoarse while something thing that may or may not be a shaved Sasquatch makes the occasional appearance in a frame or two. In the most 2016 horror movie trope of all, the film gives you a jump scare every 15 to 20 seconds. Things get so ridiculous in that regard one character even yells at another “Would you stop doing that?” and I can’t help but think it’s a meta moment on behalf of the filmmakers to acknowledge that the practice is indeed out of control. The abundance of jump scares combined with Wingaard doubling down on the shaky camerawork that represents the most legitimate criticism of the original film, and the staccato camera cuts and haphazard zoom ins and outs have the negative effect of never allowing the audience to connect with and process the more terrifying moments of the film. Nothing has a chance to breathe as the film zips from one moment to the next like an ADHD addled eight year old that found his dad’s coke stash AND a jet pack that is tracking the flight pattern of the common house fly. In other words, it’s a bit much.
The pace and over reliance on shoddy camera tricks are my two biggest gripes with the film. My other complaints stem from Blair Witch being very much a product of a studio in 2016 rather that something in the spirit of the arthouse film that swung for and reached the fences in 1999. Whereas the original trio of Heather, Mike and Joshua looked like they were on their way to a Mudhoney show at the Rathskellar, the new cast has the pristine, glossy look of Benneton models. The original film struck a nice tonal balance in the way it was shot, with the pristine 35mm exposing the artifice of the staged documentary versus the raw, grainy 8mm footage that captured the real terror as the filmmakers found themselves lost, scared and hungry. The closest the new film veers into that territory is an offhand comment by Lane about how he prefers the realness of miniDV tapes to the modern digital hard drive cams. The original characters seemed to be written in a gender neutral way that allowed them to be three dimensional, especially in the case of Heather. Donahue was given the opportunity to be an assertive badass that could also vacillate between being a basket case and a petty tyrant from one moment to the next. Wherever you fell on the scale of your feelings about the character, she made an impression. That’s not the case here as the new group is much more stock and generic. Whereas the 1999 film crafted an experience that, if it worked for you, preyed on your imagination for a long time, the new movie offers you a solid hour and a half of entertainment that should tide you over until the next new thing.
After almost 1700 words of the subject, “solid” is the one that best describes the new film. It’s not a classic film, but it’s an entertaining and fun movie that takes some big swings, even if they don’t all manage to land. Given the studio expectations over what a Blair Witch movie should look like in 2016, I think it’s safe to say that the more than capable Wingaard and Barrett delivered a film that lesser hands would have turned into a cringe inducing train wreck. Or you know, something even shittier than Book of Shadows. Go see this movie, see it with a crowd, but just don’t expect the same tone of the first film. While the new Blair Witch doesn’t deliver an all time classic like its predecessor, it’s a solid entry to this year’s string of above average big screen horror fare.