Blair Witch (United States, 2016)

September 16, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Blair Witch Poster

In 1999, the now-defunct Artisan Entertainment introduced horror fans to The Blair Witch Project, a film so unique in approach and intent that it became an immediate art house sensation. In a marketing blunder that underestimated the differences between cult horror and its mainstream counterpart, Artisan expanded The Blair Witch Project into multiplexes and the rabid admiration accompanying its limited release turned into a vicious backlash. The distributor subsequently invested in a dreadful 2000 sequel, Book of Shadows, which fared so poorly at the box office that it seemed to bury the legend of The Blair Witch in a deep grave. Apparently, however, Adam Wingard (V/H/S) never forgot the impact of the original and, when given the opportunity to make a sequel, he leaped at the chance. Unfortunately, although Blair Witch owes much to the spirit of The Blair Witch Project, it’s an inferior production. This is as much a result of stylistic and narrative choices as it is a reflection of how the horror landscape has changed in the last 17 years.

When The Blair Witch Project was released, the concept of first-person “found footage” was relatively unheard-of. Although technically not the first of a kind (the dreadful Cannibal Holocaust owns that medal), Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s low-budget romp through the woods popularized it. At the time, however, the horror field wasn’t oversaturated by these first-person movies. It was unique and exciting. The filmmakers went to great lengths to create a background story (including a fake website) that duped many viewers into believing that the events depicted in The Blair Witch Project actually happened.

For Blair Witch, although Wingard pays lip service to this, there’s no follow-through. Indeed, in 2016, it wouldn’t work. We accept from the beginning that this is fiction. The title card is problematic, however. It announces that the footage in the movie was (like in The Blair Witch Project) assembled from remnants that were found in the woods near Burkettsville, MD. By aping the way the first movie began, however, the filmmakers effectively inform us that none of the characters are going to make it out alive. That, in turn, saps a lot of the suspense. We’re watching a group of dead men and women walking. In The Blair Witch Project, everything was so creepy and mysterious that it didn’t matter. Here, we know the routine and there are times when the path to the end feels more like a slog than a journey.

The first half-hour is setup. The leader of this exploration into the Black Hills Forest is James (James Allen McCune), the (much) younger brother of The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue. Convinced that a YouTube video shows a glimpse of his sister, he recruits his filmmaker friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), and two other buddies, Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), to tag along. They are all wired for sound and video with tiny ear cameras, more traditional hand-helds, and even a drone to provide “helicopter shots” for Lisa’s planned documentary. Along the way, they meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the couple who unearthed the YouTube footage. They wander into the forest and immediately begin violating “haunted woods” movie rules: (1) Watch where you’re walking if you’re barefoot, (2) Never venture far from camp in search of fire wood, and (3) Set up a rotating watch-person during the night.

Things get creepy fast, although the result, with all the shaky-cam activity and loud noises (replacing the more subtle and effective sound work of The Blair Witch Project), is less frightening than it is confusing (and, for those afflicted with motion sickness, stomach-churning). Every time the lights go out, it sounds like King Kong is crashing through the forest, knocking over trees along the way. Eventually, there’s a betrayal within the group that leads to a reduced number of characters. After that, there are some odd time-travel and reality-bending elements. One character’s injury allows us to experience a hard-core gross-out moment. As for the ending…it resolves nothing but goes on forever. Blair Witch starts to overstay its welcome around the 60-minute mark and, by the time it fades to black at about 85 minutes, we’re more than happy to have things done. The final 15 minutes drag - we know everyone’s going to die, we know they’re going to leave behind footage, so why not get on with it? Protracted shaky-cam wandering around in a haunted house with uneven lighting doesn’t make for compelling viewing.

It’s an interesting thought-piece to speculate whether this movie might have worked better had it replaced The Book of Shadows as the first sequel since it’s similar in many ways to the original. But this is 2016 and not 2000 and the horror genre has moved on. Found footage has evolved from being edgy and interesting to being an overused joke. Jump scares (which Blair Witch relies on too often) have become the province of the lazy filmmaker. Perhaps for someone who never saw The Blair Witch Project, this might represent an adequate scary movie. But for those who have seen Myrick and Sanchez’s calling card, regardless of whether they loved it or hated it, Blair Witch will seem more like a pale homage than a new chapter to the saga.

Blair Witch (United States, 2016)

Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
Screenplay: Simon Barrett
Cinematography: Robby Baumgartner
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:29
U.S. Release Date: 2016-09-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1