Well, I guess there are sequels for everything now. The Blair Witch Project kicked off the mainstream “found footage” genre back in 1999 with its “less is more” approach to horror filmmaking, and we haven’t been able to get rid of the half-assed attempts at emulating its greatness since. No, I will not take Paranormal Activity as an example of when the format is used efficiently and correctly.
Anyway, I digress: Blair Witch comes to your eyes from the talented folk behind great genre throwbacks like You’re Next and The Guest. Unfortunately, where those throwbacks excelled in craft and wit, this one is completely lacking. It’s a loud, grating experience destined to join the rest of the scrap heap because of its brave but misaligned goal to expand “Blair Witch” lore. Here’s the thing, though: there isn’t any lore. Suspension of disbelief was key in enjoying the original, but now everyone knows the bag of tricks.
James (James Allen McCune) lost his sister some odd years ago after her and her group of filmmaking friends disappeared into the forest of Burkittsville, Maryland. A tape has resurfaced on YouTube that may give him some clues and closure to his sister’s disappearance. That’s when him and group of friends decide it’d be a good idea to bring a bunch of camera equipment into those same woods to look for “closure.” What they get is much more sinister, duh.
Blair Witch has a bit of a hefty burden on its shoulders just based on conception. The original frightened audiences because it’s actually a well-crafted movie involving sounds in the forest that can make someone hide under their blankets. I know this because I watched it in my bedroom the other night for the first time and was justifiably terrified. Even though after the original released in theaters, everything about the film turned out to be a hoax, it was a damn good hoax. Even with that same suspension of disbelief applied here, lightning doesn’t strike twice.
If anything, Blair Witch has more in common with its blockbuster brethren playing in adjacent theaters than the original itself. It’s a bigger and louder retread, promising things and then never delivering them. We learn pretty early on that the characters this time around have been duped by someone making a last-ditch effort to get people to believe him about the “Blair Witch.” That’s when things start going bump in the night. One of the crew gets sick, another gets lovesick (heh), one goes missing, and then the leader decides to do stupid things because he thinks his sister is still alive after many years.
I apologize if this is a bit vulgar, but 90 minutes of shaky-cam, screeching, dropped cameras, drone shots, and sad attempts at misdirection all add up to the worst bit of coitus interruptus put on screen this year. For the whole movie, the story keeps teasing and teasing that the promise of more horror delivered by the “Blair Witch” will finally come to fruition. The truth must finally come out! Spoiler alert: it doesn’t, it just kind of wimps out towards the end.
It isn’t all terrible, luckily. The people that make up the crew more often than not do a good job of being invested in their troubles. Their decisions aren’t wholly stupid, even though their newfangled digital cameras and technology constantly fail. James’ friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who’s the documentary filmmaker of the crew, purports that she’s making something about James’ grief. Of course, that changes a bit once things start going bad, but we’re saved from a subplot about her true intentions.
If there’s a major gripe to be had with Blair Witch, it’s that the going gets tough incredibly early on. If we’re going to try to emulate the original’s attributes, then why not just let things build up to a jarring climax? Horror films don’t have to keep scaring or thrilling. They don’t even have to scare early on. They just need to do it well when they end up doing it. Blair Witch doesn’t end up doing “it,” ever really.