[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival; Blair Witch opens today.]
In 1999, The Blair Witch Project got away with something that would be impossible today: it made people believe a found-footage horror film really happened. 17 years later, audiences are savvier and the found-footage horror film is a sub-genre staple where we get at least one or two found-footage pictures per year. The Blair Witch Project helped spawned the genre without having to fully play by its rules. It also was a true indie, lacking any names and made on a shoestring budget. Its 2000 sequel, Book of Shadows, has largely been forgotten, and now You’re Next director Adam Wingard has offered up what’s been described as a “true sequel” with Blair Witch. But Blair Witch is far more remake than sequel, hitting pretty much the same beats as the original but with polish and craft. And yet, the obvious artifice ends up detracting from the original’s roughshod appeal.
Blair Witch is a bit of a legacyquel. The story follows James (James Allen McCune), younger brother of Project’s Heather Donahue, who’s starring in a documentary about the search for his sister for his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez). For those that haven’t seen Project, Heather was a documentary filmmaker who, along with her friends Josh and Michael, vanished in the Black Hills Mountains in October 1994. James recently received a new video that may provide clues to what happened to Heather, and he brings along his friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) to join his search. The group meets up with the people who found the new tape, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who insist on coming along into the woods to track down the legend of the Blair Witch.
From there, it’s pretty much the same as Project. The group gets lost; they argue about being lost; they wake up one morning to find their camp has been adorned with creepy stick figures; and so forth. Wingard makes a few interesting additions like one of the campers getting injured and trying to build in a mythology around the Blair Witch. He also highlights the new tech this group has available like earpiece cameras and a drone. Even though Blair Witch isn’t a big budget film, it carries itself like a big budget remake. It’s almost like it’s looking at the original and saying, “That’s cute; now let the professionals show you how it’s done.”
But part of the charm of the original was its lack of professionalism. The lack of polish made Project seem more authentic, and the new film is at its best when it keeps things simple. Blair Witch is much scarier in the moments where it’s just a character alone in the woods at night armed only with a flashlight. In those moments, anything could happen, and it hews to the ethos of the original that the scariest things are only what’s alluded to and what you can’t see. When you have moments like tents being sucked into the sky or the conscious framing to draw your eye over a character’s shoulder, Blair Witch no longer feels real and immediate.
Just because something’s crafted, that doesn’t mean it can’t be scary, but Blair Witch is at odds with itself. The plot constantly recalls the low-budget original, but it also wants to exist as a bigger, more aggressive remake. In its smaller moments, Wingard gets to have it both ways, but the bigger he tries to make his movie, the less scary it becomes (although, full disclosure, I had my hands over my ears for about two-thirds of the movie to ward off loud noise jump scares; also, I’m a wuss). Perhaps Wingard could have gotten away with more flourishes if he took the story someplace new, but it’s following firmly in the footsteps of the original.
Oddly, he also doesn’t do anything with his greatest asset: the technology. Wingard seems pleased to have more toys in his toy box, but he doesn’t consider the role of cameras in the present day. Making a documentary today means something different than it did in 1999, but Blair Witch only sees it through a lens of technological advancement rather than cultural change. It’s a movie that steadfastly refuses to go anywhere new or accept the passage of time beyond a superficial level.
If you’ve never seen The Blair Witch Project, you might find Blair Witch more effective and surprising. And you don’t really need to see Project to appreciate Wingard’s film. But for those who have seen the original, Blair Witch is a frustrating experience. It’s well crafted, and at times incredibly scary, but the woods aren’t as terrifying when you’ve already walked through them.