Blair Witch (2016)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-09-17 04:12

Written by: Simon Barrett
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, and Corbin Reid

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"Legend says there's been a curse on these woods."

Cultural phenomena rarely take the arc that defined The Blair Witch Project. Arriving on a wave of never-before-seen marketing hype that blurred fiction and reality, the film was a genuine event in a way few horror films are. By the time the buzz surrounding it reached a fever pitch, a sense of deflation was inevitable once the film was released on an unsuspecting public, many of whom were left befuddled by the whole thing. Only a few months later, it had all but dissipated since its “secret” was out, leaving Artisan with a tidy profit but a franchise non-starter, an ironic fate for a film boasting an elaborate mythology. The inevitable sequel was less an obligatory retread and more a concentrated effort to douse gasoline and on this “series” and watch it go up in a conflagration of goth and nu-metal. And just like that, The Blair Witch was gone, left to lay fallow for over a decade.

Fittingly, it became the stuff of whispers, a shared communal event whose legend grew during those years—say what you want about the final product, but The Blair Witch Project was an experience that couldn’t be replicated. For a while, it looked like everyone involved respected that lightning-in-a-bottle quality and left it well enough alone—and then this happened. In many ways, Blair Witch attempts to recreate the dynamic of its predecessor, all the way down to its memorable marketing. First announced as The Woods, the film needed little hype beyond its credentials as the latest from Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, but the revelation that the duo had actually produced a covert Blair Witch sequel recalled memories of that summer in 1999, if only ever so faintly. While it couldn’t hope to top that, it was nice to be surprised by a movie’s existence—sometimes, it’s just fun to get wrapped up in this sort of thing, even if it feels a bit like déjà vu.

It turns out the experience leading up to Blair Witch—a sort of half-hearted rendition of the lead-up to The Blair Witch Project—is a bit of a harbinger. Just as you can’t recreate the experience of The Blair Witch Project, you can’t recapture the film itself. In many ways, chasing that dragon is the story here: set 20 years after the original, it finds Heather Donahue’s brother James (James Allen McCune) conducting his own search for the whereabouts of his long-lost sister. He’s introduced as something of a fanatic, combing over footage recovered from the infamous Black Hills that may have claimed his sister’s life. Spurred on by this newly found footage and his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), he and his friends head off into the wilderness of Burkittsville with cameras-a-plenty and a couple of local guides (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) in tow.

For better and for worse, Blair Witch is the sequel most likely expected back in 2000. Whatever criticisms you might lob in the direction of Book of Shadows, it’s unlikely they contain the words “predictable” “retread” or “same old shit.” Puzzling? Sure, but it was also a daring as hell acknowledgement that it was impossible to just redo the first movie. Sixteen years later, Blair Witch seemingly hopes that a passage of time will make such an attempt more viable, and while I wouldn’t exactly consider it a completely predictable retread itself, I’m not quite sure it ever completely finds a life of its own outside of the original film’s shadow. There’s quite literally a sense of “been there, done that,” an ironic turn of events since it’s following up a groundbreaking film. One of the reasons Blair Witch struggles to feel completely vital is that it’s the latest in a long line of other imitators that eventually popped up in the wake of Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity.

Of course, if its inability to live up to a seminal original is the most damning critique of Blair Witch, then it simply joins the ranks of other perfectly fine, serviceable sequels that had little to no hope of recapturing former glory. Think along the lines of Jaws 2, Damien, and Psycho II, all of which are entertaining, worthwhile additions that err more on the side of providing thrills. It’s perhaps a shade removed from the original, which isn’t to say it’s not scary—you can’t help but be unnerved a little bit by the woodsy desolation and bump-in-the-night atmosphere—it’s just that Blair Witch is more of a roller coaster ride once it gets going. There’s an argument to be made that this makes it the antithesis of The Blair Witch Project, a film that slowly but surely crawls through your psyche without resorting to an abundance of loud, obvious moments; such an argument isn’t wrong, but the sequel’s approach is hardly a sacrilege. In fact, it might be the filmmakers’ best acknowledgement that there’s no sense in directly Xeroxing the original.

Plus, with Wingard and Barrett at the helm, it’s obviously one hell of a ride, and one that saddles the audience with some pretty decent on-screen companions to boot. The chemistry between the main quartet is believable, and they’re all likewise believably decent folks that don’t deserve the awful shit that eventually happens to them. James’s lifelong friend Peter (Brandon Scott) provides some much-needed levity to off-set the ominous surroundings, but I also love the quiet, shifty desperation of Lane (Robinson) and Talia (Curry), the local couple who want nothing more than to find something, and they’ll resort to some shady tactics to accomplish it. Lane especially becomes an interesting figure that (in typical Blair Witch fashion) you can’t quite pin down—there’s probably something to be said about how his obsession with the Blair Witch and his hellish attempt to find her mirrors a futile attempt to simply craft a redux. He and Talia essentially attempt to stage their own remake, only to get literally lost—given Wingard and Barrett’s penchant for meta-horror, I can’t help but wonder about the subtext there.

For the most part, though, Blair Witch isn’t much concerned with subtext or subtlety. It’s the textbook example of the bigger, louder sequel that relies on escalation. Armed with handheld camcorders, Go-Pros, and even a drone camera, Wingard opens up the scope and scale ever so slightly; however, if I’m being honest, some opportunities—such as some involving rare stationary cam shots—feel a bit wasted, and, with the exception of a great shot emphasizing the vastness of the Black Hills, the drone is a non-entity, used only as a prop to set up one of the film’s more violent moments. Speaking of which, the violence is ramped up here, as a fifteen second scene that sees a character dressing a wound provides more squirm-worthy gore than the entirety of The Blair Witch Project.

Another gruesome, limb-contorting outburst practically doubles as the opening gun for the film’s breathless climax, a full-throttle sprint that winds and wends its way through the Black Hills. Thunder, lightning, and a swirling rain add to a rowdy, chaotic reprisal of the original’s film bewildering ending. Wingard injects the familiar digs with a spook-a-blast routine—it’s Blair Witch by way of The Evil Dead, right down to the prominent use of a cellar (and a character named Ash!). Whatever doubts I had about the film were all but forgotten by this point, as Wingard orchestrates a terrific freakout, one that’s loaded with on-screen jolts and a creeping, existential dread provided by an intriguing wrinkle added to the mythos here. The footage becomes increasingly glitchy here, almost as if it were impossibly capturing a dispatch from some Lovecraftian nether-region, where fleeting glimpses of disquieted spirits freely flit about, unloosed from time and space.

Despite its willingness to show more than The Blair Witch Project ever did, this follow-up nonetheless unnerves through suggestion. There’s still something suffocating about the mystifying, unfathomable scenario at play here that faintly recalls the legitimate psychological dread of the first movie. Purists might be dismayed by just how much Barrett and Wingard do reveal, particularly as it relates to the titular witch herself, but they show a certain restraint by not lingering on it too much. A little something is left to the imagination, and you can feel the film constantly attempting to split this difference. For every confirmed glimpse, there’s a couple of questions about just what in the hell is actually going on, so the film is reverent of the franchise legacy in that regard. Rustin Parr and Elly Kedward (or whatever the hell she became) remain enigmas, as Barrett rightfully adds very little to their specific mythos.

I can see that as a source of frustration, too: after sixteen years, I understand the desire for wanting to dig more deeply and expand upon the actual story instead of rehashing existing backstory as (literal) campfire tales in a sequel. However, isn’t this almost always the first step towards completely deflating a horror icon? It’s an old cliché but a true one: the more we know about a monster, the less scary it is. Blair Witch might not aim for the genuine, nerve-jangling terror of the first film, but it at least respects its sense of mystery: it wants to provide more thrills, but it’s not willing to completely sacrifice that “what the hell was that?” sensation once the credits abruptly roll.

Maybe this does make it something of a retread after all. Usually, I don’t take reactions into account for a review, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at some of the instant feedback from last night’s early shows. It was almost shades of 16 years ago, when the lights came up to a puzzled auditorium full of patrons wondering aloud “that’s it? Really?” There’s a faint whiff of that once again with Blair Witch, and I’ll confess that it feels like an odd addendum: it doesn’t add much to the found footage mix, nor does it provide a monumental (or even experimental) expansion to the mythology. It’s a curious movie, and I almost wonder if the franchise attachment isn’t a double-edged sword: without it, expectations might not be so high, but neither would the intrigue. Almost everything compelling about it derives from its association with The Blair Witch Project, yet it’s that connection that also sets a high bar. All these years later, the Blair Witch manages to have a unique relationship with its own hype.

The film’s suggestive time-looping is appropriate: if history truly does repeat, then Blair Witch may eventually be ripe for reappraisal like the franchise’s previous films. Once the haze of expectations clears, it’ll be a little easier to see it for what it is: a wicked, unexpected sequel that admirably carries the torch for one of the strangest, trickiest franchises of all time. That we now have three Blair Witch movies at all feels like a feat; that all three are completely worthwhile in their own way is a triumph.

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