Found-footage horror movies are a strange format for filmmaking that sometimes works wonderfully, and other times dully, an uninspired mess with the storytelling technique utilized for pure gimmickry and nothing else. People forget that when the original Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it was totally unlike anything anyone had ever seen (I mean, Cannibal Holocaust already existed, but unless you were a gore hound, you probably had no idea it existed). And unlike the hundreds and hundreds of impostors that have been released since, The Blair Witch Project didn’t present itself as a “found-footage” horror movie for any other reason than it was the most effective method of telling that story. On the DVD special features, you can find a faux documentary that is also pretty well-done and creepy, but nothing compared to the actual feature film. There was something so raw about it, so boiled-down-to-its-essence scary that made a lot of people forget that it thrived on ambiguity. Whether or not there was even a witch in the movie was completely irrelevant. What mattered was taking primal fears and running with them. No one is inherently afraid of witches, but we’re all afraid of the unknown, and we’re all afraid of being killed by it. That’s why the original film is so effective.
Some 17 years later, and with another sequel long forgotten, comes Blair Witch, a direct follow up to the 1999 film. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett are a horror duo for the ages. Their past films You’re Next and The Guest brilliantly blend together a variety of genres to create this wholly unique narrative. They know their stuff. The Guest, in particular, plays like a best-of album from the 70s and 80s, seamlessly blending action and horror and vague sci-fi together without being self-serious nor too obnoxiously self-aware. The balancing act that movie pulls off is almost perfect.
I heard that the duo had made a film called The Woods and according to the trailer, it was supposed to be scary as hell. When I found out it was really, actually a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, I was so psyched. I could feel legitimate excitement well up inside of me.
A writer-director team that knows the language of film and of horror pulling off a secretly-filmed sequel to one of the scariest horror films of all time sounds like an absolute slam dunk. Unfortunately it wasn’t. It’s not an anger-inducing waste of time at the movies, or overwhelmingly stupid. On the contrary, it’s actually a rather good time when the film is working well; it’s just that for the majority of the time, it isn’t.
The new Blair Witch begins the way almost all found-footage horror movies do, introducing the characters one-by-one with interviews or non-sequitur statements said off camera and then clarified later on. James (James Allen McCune), we find out, is the brother of Heather from the original Blair Witch Project and he believes that she is still in the woods, still alive, and he intends to venture out to the same woods in order to find her. His friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) plans to film the whole thing for a documentary that she’s making. She has a million nifty little cameras that everyone can wear so that she can document the entire thing from every imaginable camera angle over the entire course of the trip (she even has a drone), but never thinks to bring a stabilization device to make the footage actually watchable. In between shaky footage, she and James make kissy-cutesy faces at each other and you have to wonder why the filmmakers thought a quasi-romance in this kind of movie was a good idea.
Along for the ride are their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) who has known James for his entire life, and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid). Also along for the ride are town locals and exposition-espousers Lane and Talia (Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry), who uploaded recent video of who may or may not have been Heather to the internet.
With the pieces set in place, the movie begins similarly through the woods as a fun romp that soon deteriorates as technology fails them and they begin to get lost. Tensions flare, lies are told, tensions flare again and reach a breaking point and then… well, there are interesting things that happen in this movie, but the movie doesn’t seem to be interested in doing anything with it. At one point, the flow of time is altered and the idea of being somewhere that is this sort of limbo between life and death, controlled entirely by an evil, supernatural entity is such a creepy, twisted idea, but then it’s never really brought up again. Instead, the movie decides to assault the viewer with jump-scare after jump-scare. I swear to god, no one in this movie knows how to approach another person without sounding like an explosion. In this world that Blair Witch takes place in, I’d have a heart attack every single day if people just introduced themselves to me with such sudden fury.
I hate to bring up the original again and again, but like I said before, ambiguity was the whole point of The Blair Witch Project. Blair Witch, on the other hand, throws any sense of the unknown out the window. We know, for absolute certain, that we are dealing with a witch, one made of pure evil, and once you know that, you know how the film is going to end. You know there’s not going to be any real surprises, so you’re just watching people run and scream and hide from a growling beast until the running time of the movie is over. There are some surprisingly effective moments along the way that deal with more tangible bits of fear like heights or claustrophobia (the scene in the tunnel was good fun), but the characters are all so essentially unlikable that you’re pretty much on the witch’s side from the beginning.
And if the filmmakers didn’t want me to keep comparing their film to the original, they shouldn’t have followed its entire formula, because what keeps me from being invested in Blair Witch is the idea that someone would actually find this footage somewhere. The original? Okay, you find some video tapes, some film canisters and contained within is some truly terrifying footage of some kids who get lost in the woods and get messed with until they die. If you found the footage from this movie, you’d be like, “Holy shit, there are some haunted-ass woods, and we need to call in a napalm strike against some spooky witch that lives there.” And plus, everyone in this sequel is unbelievably attractive. No group of friends is that sexy. I can’t believe this footage and buy it as any sort of reality.
Damning with faint praise time: If you’re looking for meaningless, sometimes-scary entertainment, Blair Witch is actually worth the price of admission. It has moments that are very well done. But, if you’re looking for a worthy sequel to a horror classic, just watch the original.
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett and talented filmmakers and I hope that the misstep they found here has just been a learning experience from which they’ll move forward and create something newer and better. I’m sure they will, and I’ll be looking forward to it.