16 years ago, The Blair Witch Project introduced the world to a whole new spectrum of horror filmmaking. An authentic POV cam style that evoked the grim nihilistic tone of Texas Chainsaw Massacre but for a modern indie scene. That film essentially created viral marketing and convinced a solid amount of the populace that its events were real. In the wake of Project, many a found footage film has tried to recapture that burst of crazed genuine terror on even lesser budgets, particularly once Paranormal Activity proved it could continue to be commercially viable. Yet, the only follow up the world got to the progenitor of the genre was the traditionally shot yet incredibly incoherent Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. It was so reviled and poorly received that the franchise lied dormant… until now. Blair Witch seeks to be a true sequel. One that takes the mythology and put it into a new context. Sleeker visuals, but with a familiar touch. Blair Witch certainly achieved that… but is that enough?
Our story starts with James Donahue (James Allen McCune) looking at a YouTube video of what seems to be new footage taken in the house from the end of Project. James is the younger brother of Heather Donahue, who disappeared when he was four. Hellbent on discovering whether or not a mysterious wool capped figure in the video is his sister, James plans to go back to the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland to seek out that very house. Along for the ride are his friends Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), who help James film the entire affair by strapping cameras to their heads and bringing along a drone. The four are lead to the woods by the person who uploaded that video after finding it in the woods Lane (Wes Robinson) and his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry). As the group roams deeper into the woods, familiar signs begin to appear. Rock totems. Wooden stick figures. Endless repetition of their paths along the way. Will our young heroes find the Blair Witch in the woods… or has the titular witch already found them?
In terms of familiar aspects from Project that come back to haunt our modern college students, the endless repetition is probably the most accurate one to describe the first hour of Blair Witch. While the original was no stranger to formula, there did seem to be an escalation with each repeating pattern. That quite frankly isn’t the case with Blair Witch, which meanders through a lesser retread of the original. It’s extremely disappointing, given James’ search for his sister being a solid motivation and the footage he finds is actually a propulsive way to start the film. From there, the first hour of Blair Witch is honestly devoid of escalation in terms of character tension or development. We know so little about any of these people. James misses his sister he barely knew at four. Ashley and Peter are in a relationship. Lisa might have a thing for James? I guess? It’s so little to go on.
None of the actors here are devoid of chemistry, but most of them feel so polished. Say what you will about Heather, Josh and Mike, but their annoying tension was honest and helped the immersion for this pho-reality. These kids just seem like they’re straight out of a Hollywood casting session. The only possible exception would be Wes Robinson. His greasy Miles Teller style manic energy at least made him a more distinctive personality. Everyone else quite frankly feels like chess pieces to be moved around. Blair Witch plays like a GAP commercial version of the original film in its first hour. A hollow uninteresting attempt to bank on 90s nostalgia while not seemingly giving much beyond the basic substances of the original film.
That chess piece element isn’t uncommon for director Adam Winegard and writer Simon Barrett. The creative team behind You’re Next and The Guest have an intriguing precision with their style of genre deconstruction. They’re well aware of how the formula works and usually dissect it wonderfully. With Blair Witch, the deconstruction really isn’t there. Instead, that first hour plays like a flat imitation of the original film. Stick figures. Rock piles. Stammering around the woods seeing nothing. Nothing new. Nothing innovative. Just a remake with more characters, flaccid build up and repetitive jump scares. The latter is especially annoying, since these scares are just the children running into each other loudly. Honestly, Blair Witch feels vapidly soulless in its mechanical progression during that first hour, which is the last thing I expected from Barrett and Winegard. Even on a filmmaking level, there’s nothing immersive about seeing these beautiful people walk through the woods. The woods feel fake in context of this glossy polished take on the legend of the titular monster.
Now. I’ve said a lot disparaging stuff about Blair Witch in context of its initial two thirds. That’s obvious. But, don’t think it comes from a space of pure hate. If anything, the frustration with Blair Witch is that after this hour of nothing… it becomes such an engrossing heart pounding horror film that visualizes the terror of the original in a phenomenal fashion. The found footage is used perfectly to give you this immersive hell ride through this universe’s mythology. Winegard plays with time so well in showing off the full extent of the titular beast as a character. Yet, there’s still an air of mystery. We aren’t outright told about the powers of the Blair Witch, but the images shown are terrifying and repetitious in a way that bottles the growing insanity of the original and subverts it’s endless openness at the same time. Even the camera is used in a clever fashion, building upon the mythology in a creative visual way that’s a testament to Winegard’s skills as an intimidating directorial force. It’s the perfect ending for those who walked out of Project hoping that something would happen.
So… Blair Witch is a pretty mixed bag. The quality level fluctuates more than Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2‘s logic. It’s a frustrating experience due to just how well constructed that finale is. It’s almost as if Winegard and Barrett were creating a film that’s a cynical reaction to reboots in general. These kids are just wandering through the same woods a decade and a half after these terrible documented effects happened and we get treated to their bland found footage/reboot lives only so we can see them get screwed over in an actual finale. I’d respect that idea if it weren’t so bitter a reading.
Yet, it’s the most interesting way I can theorize how this happened. One of the better pulls out of being a near nosedive of a reboot. I can say this much; Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is a much worse movie… but it at least took a different approach toward the original where Blair Witch didn’t. That being said, much like the original film, Blair Witch had a solid marketing campaign for it’s time. While the other built hype through months of planted marketing… Blair Witch had nothing. Building new expectation in new found avenues vs not building anything in a now over exposed marketing world Project created. Just wished the first hour took similar lessons from modern repetitive reboots. Or it’s own last third.
Rating: (2.5 / 5)