Genre: Horror, Thriller
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Valorie Curry
The original Blair Witch Project, released back in 1999, was a groundbreaking exercise in low budget genre filmmaking, kick-starting a trend of found footage horror movies that have rarely come close to matching the intensity, atmospheric creeps and nerve tingling scares conjured by that original classic. Made on a shoestring budget of $60,000 dollars and with a marketing campaign that still rates as one of the first and finest examples of internet viral marketing, the film became a phenomenon at the time, eventually going on to gross nearly $300 million dollars worldwide. It didn’t exactly ignite the careers of its filmmakers or its cast, but there’s no denying that it was truly something special.
Now, finally after seventeen years and many imitators later, a proper sequel has arrived in the form of Blair Witch (we’ll happily skip the god awful Book Of Shadows from 2000), a film that for the longest time, was shrouded in complete mystery, going so far as to be advertised under a different title (The Woods) until it was finally unveiled at Comic-Con back in July to incredibly warm and enthusiastic reviews from those in attendance.Directed by Adam Wingard and scripted by regular collaborator Simon Barrett, the filmmaking team behind the likes of You’re Next and The Guest, Blair Witch quickly became one of my most hotly anticipated horror offerings of 2016. It’s a great shame then, that I have to report that I found myself gravelly disappointed with the end result. By no means a disaster – the film is a hugely marked improvement over the woeful Book of Shadows – Blair Witch is unfortunately nothing more than a somewhat bland retread of the original, barely offering up anything new besides a couple of nifty additions to the mythology, and with more flashy camera tech, louder bangs in the night and more annoying characters than before. In other words, it’s no more than just another found footage horror movie.
Set twenty years after the events of the first film, the story follows James, the younger brother of the original’s Heather, who discovers a video uploaded to YouTube resembling the terrifying cabin in the Burkittsville woods and possibly showing an image of James’s long thought dead sister. Connecting with the locals who uploaded the video, James learns that the tape was found on the edge of the infamous Maryland woods and sets out to find the truth about what happened. Accompanying him on his little excursion are film student Lisa, and her friends, Ashley and Peter. The foursome gather a bunch of high tech camera equipment, including a drone and a set of nifty earpiece camera headsets and head out to the woods, hooking up with a couple of local Blair Witch enthusiasts in the process. Next thing you know, everything goes as you would expect, with loud noises in the surrounding area and their campsite inundated with strange stick models. Yes, it seems the group are not alone.
And herein lies the major problem with Blair Witch — everything one would expect to happen, happens. It’s every found footage horror rolled into one — complete with the best and worst aspects of the style. From the irritating characters right down to the frustrating jittery, nausea inducing camerawork, all resulting in virtually scare-free antics. Thankfully things improve once the group venture into the woods themselves, but when the spooky stuff starts happening, it doesn’t deliver anything new. Whereas the original traded on quiet, nerve shredding tension that sent chills along your spine, the only uncomfortable feeling one has when watching Blair Witch exists in anticipation of the next mindless jump scare. It also doesn’t help that the characters are so frustratingly annoying; it’s hard to become invested in a movie when you don’t give a damn about any of the characters’ survival.But this is a film directed by Adam Wingard, a man who can turn even the most schlockiest of genre templates into thrilling cinema, and Blair Witch is no exception in that regard. Once things do get cracking, the film finally comes into its own, providing a series of incredibly taut and intense set pieces that are absolutely thrilling to watch. As panic begins to set in with the group and the proverbial shit finally hits the fan, Wingard and his team kick things up to eleven and boy, does the film fly. The final twenty minutes are a masterclass in found footage horror. It’s not that scary but it is exciting to watch, playing out more like a rollercoaster than a spooky horror ride of fear and tension.
With inventive scares and terrifying moments, the film thrives in its denouement, which makes it even more disappointing that everything that came before was so mediocre. Despite a few nifty flourishes and expansion on the mythology, the film never rises above its generic tropes, instead playing things incredibly safe for a mainstream market. Overall, this is one of the big disappointments of 2016, even if the last twenty minutes are truly exceptional.