Another Trip Back Into the Woods of the Massive Cult Hit
Directed by Adam Wingard/2016
In 1999, The Blair Witch Project shook the film world. What it did was almost unprecedented and cannot be duplicated, mostly due to the fact that it capitalized on both the still-forming internet and the then-peaking cable channels. That old, creepy website they put up along with the Discovery Channel documentary about 3 young filmmakers who had gone missing really created this atmosphere that would have made anyone entering the theater terrified. As a young horror movie fan, I was not astute nor cynical enough to question the legitimacy of the movie. I thought it was 100 pct real until the day before when I learned it was all just a movie, like any other movie, and there were never any missing kids.
But it didn’t change anything. I was scared out of my wits. The film worked. There is backlash today against it from people complaining about anything from the shaky camera to it being the first film of the sub-par found footage genre. But they’re wrong. It’s a masterpiece and what I point to as an example that no matter how much people complain about movies all being unoriginal, when filmmakers try to do something new and original, people complain twice as much.
So a sequel/reboot is tricky. The underrated Book of Shadows: Blair Witch Project 2 went in a completely different direction, so it’s only loosely a sequel. But with the new movie, simply titled Blair Witch, we are given our first true sequel.
The first strength of the movie is the hiring of Adam Wingard, one of the best horror directors today. The first weakness the film has though is an unnecessary forced connection to the first movie. James (James Allen McCune) is Heather Donahue’s little brother. He has been obsessed his whole life with getting out into the woods she was never seen from again and finding out the truth. With his filmmaker friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and their friends Ashley and Peter (Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott) and a few locals, they go back into the woods to find the truth.
The first 30 minutes is hard to watch. Backstory that we the audience already know or don’t care about. And a very slow buildup to the horror once they entered the woods that seemed so tedious that it feels like we were watching a bad carbon copy of the original. Foreshadowing of things that don’t really pan out in the second and third act, like a drone camera; more stories about who the blair witch is,not realizing we already got the point almost 20 years ago. My favorite moment was when it was being explained to friends Ashely and Peter, who are African American, about the terrible things that were done to this woman in the early 1800s, and how dramatic the stories were, ignoring that the whole country was doing it to these two’s ancestors that year and many years after.
But I digress. After the 30 minute mark, the film picks up. Wingard’s talent kicks in. And for about 20-30 minutes, the movie is almost perfect. The reason the first The Blair Witch Project worked was because the directors kept the movie at about a 2 on a scale. The subtlety of the horror and the mystery of what you don’t see kept it scary. This sequel can’t do that. Too many other found-footage movies do similar things and the effectiveness of that form of film-making has long passed. So Wingard can turn it up to a 10, but a 10 is just giving the viewers the things they want to see, like the witch, the creepy kids, etc. In order to work, you have to turn the film up to a 15. You have to jerk the audience out of their comfort level, but in the other direction. And that’s what Wingard does. There are moments during this period that are perfect. Homages to the original yet turned up, like tree-sized version of the famous stick figures. Tents being sucked up into the air. The most horrific noises you will hear in a movie this year. Even some Cronenberg-inspired body horror. The whole sequence ends in a surprisingly tender moment that’s organically put in this choatic moment.
Unfortunately, the film can’t keep it up. The final 20-30 minutes felt like the constraints of the plot was suffocating the film. The very ending seeming to miss the whole point of the original.
I blame Wingard very little. He did what he could and probably did better than most would have been able to. But like some novels that are deemed unfilmable, Blair Witch appears to be a sequel that was as doomed from the beginning as the kids entering the woods.