James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
(Lionsgate / Room 101 / Snoot Entertainment / Vertigo Entertainment)
Wide: 16 Sep 2016
UK theatrical: TBD
The Blair Witch Project (1999) is widely credited with starting the ‘found footage’ craze. Its atrocious sequel, Blair Witch (2016), may be credited with finally killing it. Director Adam Wingard has crafted a horror film that’s bereft of horror, bankrupt of ideas, and beyond comprehension. Though it stays true to the spirit of the original, Blair Witch lacks the novelty and ingenuity that disguised many of its predecessor’s flaws. It’s probably time for the Blair Witch to move to the suburbs and settle down.
Blair Witch, or more aptly titled, Wandering around the Woods at Night and Screaming People’s Names, was doomed to fall short of its legacy. The promotional campaign surrounding The Blair Witch Project was a revolutionary step forward in the use of a fledgling social media. For the first time, filmmakers with no budget could advertise to millions of prospective viewers. It was a creative and exciting time, filled with the promise of democratic filmmaking and ungodly profit margins.
Now, nearly 20 years later, we’re left with all the opportunistic buzzards determined to pick the rotting carcass clean. Speaking of a rotting carcass…
Blair Witch follows the events that took place in the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland in 1999. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett disregard the existence of the first sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, ostensibly because nobody saw it. Instead, they focus on the story of a 20-something named James (James Allen McCune) who has designs on finding his long-lost sister, Heather. You remember Heather (Heather Donahue) from the first film, don’t you? She was really scared and had a runny nose. Most likely, her scream is still etched into your eardrum.
James brings along his gang of personality-free friends for the ride. We have Lisa (Callie Hernandez), the aspiring documentarian (because all of these films need an aspiring documentarian in order to justify the prevalence of cameras), Peter (Brandon Scott), the skeptical best friend who ain’t afraid of no ghost, and Ashley (Corbin Reid), a pretty girl who literally can’t take one step without injuring herself. They’ve got lots of cool toys, too, including earpiece cameras equipped with GPS and a drone helicopter that can hover above the treetops and look at the… treetops.
They join forces with a couple of sketchy Burkittsville locals who supposedly found the videotape recordings made by Heather and her witch-murdered friends. There’s Lane (Wes Robinson), the Internet creeper who goes by the hilarious handle, Darknet666, and his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry), who knows all the local legends and has the only functioning brain in the entire cast. After a few perfunctory scenes spent messing around with cameras and talking about how much they really don’t believe in the Blair Witch legend, they march into the woods to face their inevitable doom.
Did you hear that?
Ashley! Ashley!! Ashley!?!
Oh my god!!
Peter! Peter!! Peter!?!
Does this look infected?
You get the idea.
Throughout the entirety of Blair Witch there’s only one original idea; the existence of a tunnel system beneath the witch’s house. These tunnels may seem pointless, but they were part of an, “underground railroad or something”, according to one random idiot who can’t possibly understand the historical significance of what he’s saying. There’s also the added caveat that the witch only kills people who look directly at her. Don’t even think about commenting on her Facebook profile picture!
Gone are the quaint flourishes that distinguished the first film. The Blair Witch Project was famously improvised by its unknown cast; given only cryptic notes from the directors just prior to shooting. This rawness engendered a sense of realism and authenticity that made even the most benign threat seem terrifying. The familiarity and scripted feel of Blair Witch makes these same benign threats seem ridiculous. Somehow, watching trained actors panic over a pile of rocks doesn’t exactly paralyze you with fear.
Like all pointless sequels, Blair Witch takes every opportunity to amp things up to ridiculous levels. What sounded like twigs snapping in The Blair Witch Project now sounds like an entire forest exploding simultaneously. One of the ominous wooden stick figures has been hilariously ballooned to the size of a giant piñata. The filmmakers linger over festering wounds in a desperate attempt to make you squirm. Instead of the woods simply disorienting the campers, they now have the ability to alter time and perception. Don’t bother with the GPS function for your phone if you live near Burkittsville, ‘cause that stuff don’t work here.
Worse still, in their effort to make things more disorienting using the first person perspective, the filmmakers have added an unintended layer of confusion. In one pivotal scene that involves murder and mayhem (you know, the entire point of a horror movie), it’s completely unclear what’s happening and why. Loud stuff happens, someone dies, and then people start running and screaming. That isn’t scary; it’s irritating.
It should come as no spoiler that the grand finalé set in the witch’s house is equally frustrating and confusing. Instead of being a fully realized space of terror and confinement (as in the brilliant Don’t Breathe), this haunted house feels more like an unfinished level of Doom. It’s like an all-night bender of pizza and Jolt finally incapacitated the graphic designers and they could no longer be bothered to care. Characters dart into dead-end hallways and climb half-finished staircases; all while strobe lights throb and pulse for no apparent reason. Those clamoring for more Blair Witch after the original film will probably be sorry that they asked.
Blair Witch 2016 is dreadful in almost every respect. More troubling, there are no scares… none. If history has been somewhat unkind to The Blair Witch Project, it might be charitable enough to forget Blair Witch entirely.