Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Simon Barrett
Starring: James Alan McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry
Runtime: 89 minutes
Seventeen years ago, late in the summer of 1999, before my friends and I went off to college or reported for basic training, we went to the movies, sat in the second or third row of a packed auditorium (because we didn’t get there early enough for better seats) and saw The Blair Witch Project with no idea what to expect. I remember liking the film without fully appreciating it (that could have something to do with the neck strain of having to sit so close). Watching it again on a small TV on VHS about a year later and I understood the impact. Here was this more or less revolutionary style of filmmaking, now known as ‘found footage’ and while it wasn’t the first film to employ the technique, it became the most popular, spawning a filmmaking fad that still persists. Now we have Blair Witch, a direct sequel to The Blair Witch Project that attempts to expunge any memory of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 if indeed there were any. Blair Witch tries to generate nostalgia for the original while attempting to make something for itself and it’s only marginally successful to that end.
The film begins with a notice stating that this footage was found in 2014 and is just being released now, much like the first film claimed the footage was discovered in 1995 (after the trio filmed and went missing in 1994). James (James Alan McCune) is the (much) younger brother of Heather, the documentary director from the first film, who was 4 when his sister went missing in the woods near Burkettsville, MD. Now he wants to go to those woods and look for his sister because of a video that surfaced online showing a woman he believes is Heather. His friend Lisa is going to shoot a documentary on the search for a filmmaking project and also along for the ride is James’ best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashely (Corbin Reid). James has connected with the couple who posted the video, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who live near the woods and discovered the video and have agreed to be the group’s guides. After the first night, things go south, both in terms of weird things happening and the trust the group has in Lane and Talia. Of course they all get trapped and that’s when the terror begins.
Writer Simon Barrett has been making quite a name for himself in horror films over the last several years. He’s written The Guest and Your Next, a film that has been hailed as one of the best horror films of recent years, and all of these films have been made in collaboration with Blair Witch director Adam Wingard. Their approach here is one similar to how J. J. Abrams took on Star Trek and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens in that they went for a tone and composition similar to the original but with new problems and new dynamics. They introduce the concept that the woods are cursed, not just that there is a witch in them and work to broaden and deepen the mythology surrounding the Blair Witch and the woods. Once the action starts, they don’t replicate what happened to the original trio, but rather work on new ways to scare the audience.
The trouble is that most of those scares are startles. A quick jump and everything is okay. That’s certainly one trope of the found footage subgenre, to make the audience jump as a means of becoming further entrenched in the proceedings on screen. That’s fine, but it’s not a real scare, it’s not real terror or horror. They do get over that in the last 15-20 minutes when there is genuine suspense but it’s kind of too little, too late.
Aside from it being mostly startles, the film fails to grab the audience because the characters and their dynamics are terribly one note. They’re all friends, except Lane and Talia, and nothing much more. There’s little to no disagreements, except with Lane and Talia, and everything is just kind of bland. There’s no tension between James and Lisa, though it feels like Barrett and Wingard wanted there to be, there is only surface concern for Ashley when the injury she sustained while crossing a creek gets infected and she’s running a fever (James is an EMT who takes great care of her when she’s first injured then as she worsens, pays little to no attention to her). The foolish idea that his sister is still alive is not enough to sustain the credibility of the story all the way though.
The writer/director team also leaves the door open for more Blair Witch films, though I can hardly believe we need any more (unless Heather and James’ parents have a penchant for waiting an incredibly long time between kids and there’s an even younger brother that can investigate James’ disappearance later). Despite all this, the picture does offer up some good scares and some genuine suspense and terror and isn’t a total waste of time. Blair Witch doesn’t hold up against the original, but it’s an okay entry in the now incredibly tired ‘found footage’ subgenre.