Back in July a pretty standard looking shaky cam movie called The Woods pulled off the impossible by actually surprising the Internet at SDCC. It turned out that the film was a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. Blair Witch, as the movie was revealed to be called, got points for making an entrance for sure, and it got even more points because Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (You’re Next and The Guest) were behind it.
Basically two guys who are known for subverting horror genres got a hold of property that started an entire genre in and of itself. That sounds like the making of greatness or at least a horror sequel that doesn’t suck.
The Blair Witch
Director: Adam Wingard
Release Date: September 16, 2016
If you haven’t seen Wingard and Barrett’s previous two films I would recommend going out and doing that now. They are two of the best horror movies of the past decade and take your expectations for the genre and flip them on its head. That is exactly what I was expecting out of Blair Witch. Why would the studio bring these guys in if they didn’t want them to shake things up?
Unfortunately Blair Witch feels more like standard found footage than a radical shift. Aside from the last 15 minutes or so of the film Blair Witch offers very little new to the genre, surviving only on the few interesting ideas that crop up.
Blair Witch picks up 17 years after the original with James (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather, one of the trio that went missing previously. After discovering some new footage online he and his friends Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Allie (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott) return to the Maryland woods in hopes of finding Heather. They’re joined by the couple who uploaded the video to YouTube Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry). As if they hadn’t seen the footage from the original movie despite it obviously existing in this film’s universe they proceed to make all the same mistakes the original trio did and start to get picked off one by one. Oh, and Lisa is making a documentary for school, which is why everything gets recorded and they bring a drone along with them.
Wineguard is a superb horror director, but the screenplay never lets him do anything with his skills until the very end. While the original’s found footage shtick was revolutionary for the time it feels entirely needless here, especially considering everything is shot on tiny HD cameras mounted to the heads of the actors. Instead of the really-there feeling you got from the scratchy DV camera footage of the original everything feels glossy. It’s a problem in general for the found footage genre and one of the reasons its fallen a bit out of use.
More importantly, though, the film falls into horror movie genre conventions a bit too often. One of the things that makes the original film still work is that it’s more about the three people falling apart than the demonic spirit chasing after them. It’s psychological terror with a hint of monster movie, whereas this new version relies far more heavily on jump scares and glimpses of a monster in the woods. They’re perfectly well executed and offer up some scary moments, but it’s a big disappointment in general. Wineguard’s direction saves a lot of it from being truly standard, throwing in homages to Evil Dead and other horror classics, but there’s not enough there to make stand out.
Until that last 15 minutes that is. Blair Witch‘s last 15 minutes would have made an incredible short film. You could easily cut off the proceeding 75 minutes and almost all of the action would have made sense considering the pervasiveness of the original film in today’s culture. Those last 15 involve a claustrophobia-inducing scene in a tunnel, a horrifying escape through an abandon house, a clever hint at time manipulation and a conclusion that actually pulls the movie out of just being a redo of the original with HD cameras.
It does really feel like a redo, and that’s the final nail in the coffin. Much of what made Blair Witch Project work originally was the ongoing belief that it was real. The found footage genre wasn’t a thing then and so half the horror was thinking that this really happened. Blair Witch is at a disadvantage there. We’ve been over saturated with the genre and so to really stand out it needed to do something new, and it just doesn’t. It’s not a bad film and it does get scary, but it could have been more.
At least we can all still pretend that Book of Shadows doesn’t exist.