‘Blair Witch’ Review: Another Horror Sequel That Can’t Live Up to the Original Film
Let’s give the Blair Witch some credit: She may be a vengeful demon from the 17th century who likes to torture documentary filmmakers and camping enthusiasts, but as monstrous hell-beasts go, she’s pretty tech-savvy.
Back in the olden days of 1999 when the first Blair Witch Project came out, cell phones and GPS barely existed; tricking unsuspecting college kids into getting lost in the backwoods of Maryland was a relative snap. This new generation of victims come equipped with all kinds of gadgets: GoPros and cell phones and drones capable of surveilling dozens of miles of land — all of which might help these truth seekers make their way back to civilization. The witch disables them all; draining the batteries from their surveillance equipment, blocking the signals from their global positioning systems, and crashing their drone in a tree. Mercifully, she doesn’t deactivate any of the cameras they’re wearing, so we can see her incessant torture of these poor unfortunate souls.
That’s one thing this Blair Witch definitely has over the original: A compelling reason why these people keep filming even as their situation grows increasingly dire. This new cast has a few handheld cameras, including a DSLR and an old DVCAM that harkens back to the grainy look of the 1999 original. But each member of the film crew also wears a camera in a little earpiece; it records constantly as long as its batteries remain charged. Though the movie doesn’t harp on this advance in technology, the idea that at some point in the near future people will just wear tiny cameras and record their entire lives for future inclusion in a documentary and/or found-footage horror movie is the scariest part of Blair Witch — far scarier than any of the things that leap out from the dark.
That’s not to say that things don’t leap out from the dark in Blair Witch; they do, and at a much higher frequency than the original movie, which was a relatively spartan and subdued piece of horror. Although this sequel, the first in the franchise in 16 years, closely mirrors the structure of the first film, it significantly ups the supernatural component; even before Blair Witch reaches its wild climax, it’s already featured flying tents and inexplicable breaks in time and space. The first Blair Witch was so convincing in its fiction that some people believed it was a genuine work of documentary filmmaking. Anyone who thinks this Blair Witch is real should have their driver’s license revoked.
An opening title card claims this footage was recovered from the Burkittsville woods on May 5, 2014. Almost two decades after the events of the first film, the brother of one of the victims from the first movie finds possible evidence of the Blair Witch on YouTube. His name is James (James Allen McCune), and he agrees to let his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) document his attempt to track down these new leads. Along with James’ childhood friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), they head to Burkittsville to meet “Darknet666,” the uploader of the YouTube video — who’s actually another couple, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who want to tag along to investigate the woods too. On the list of bad ideas, heading back to the same place from which these kids mysteriously vanished ranks way up there, right between MC Hammer pants and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. (Later, one character will try to climb a tree, in the dark, in the middle of a witch attack, which might be the single worst idea ever.)
The Blair Witch Project slowly built an atmosphere of suffocating dread; its characters wandered the woods for days, slowly losing their way and their minds over the course of almost a week. While the movie was a massive financial success, it also sparked a common complaint with many viewers — some variation of “It’s not actually scary” or “Nothing happens” or “You never really see anything.” Blair Witch feels like a film designed to appeal to people who felt that way about the original. Any sense of mystery, ambiguity, or subtlety is gone. Several set-pieces are effective, but they’re just conventional horror stuff. There’s nothing close to the bold inventiveness of The Blair Witch Project.
That’s especially disappointing because Blair Witch was made by bold and inventive filmmakers: Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. They previously collaborated on the outstanding horror films You’re Next and The Guest, movies that drew on all kinds of influences from classic horror and reconstituted them into new works. Blair Witch is occasionally unsettling in a lizard-brain sort of way — it’s hard for a movie set mostly at night in the woods with strange noises and unseen evil not to be at least a little spooky. But it doesn’t bear much of Wingard and Barrett’s personal stamp; it seems like any director could have made this collection of cheap thrills and haunted-house tricks.
Blair Witch was initially announced as an original Wingard and Barrett concept called The Woods; it wasn’t until its premiere at San Diego Comic-Con in July that they revealed their true title and subject. Now that it’s here, I think I would have rather seen The Woods — an new idea loosely reminiscent of found-footage movies like Blair Witch Project, rather than this rehash that feels so shackled to repeating and explaining the first movie. (Did you want to know why that guy stood in the corner in The Blair Witch Project? Well now you will.) The Blair Witch Project was a once-in-a-lifetime movie, which is why so many have tried to copy it — and why so many have failed. Blair Witch does deliver the requisite shocks demanded of a horror movie for a multiplex audience, but maybe it’s time for filmmakers to stay out of these woods for a while — at least until there’s a new technology for the Blair Witch to mess with.