Produced in carefully guarded secrecy and unveiled only shortly before its theatrical release, Blair Witch is a belated sequel to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project (1999), one of the best horror films of the past two decades whose unfortunate legacy has been an endless stream of low-budget thrillers that exploit the "found footage" concept as both a cost-saving mechanism and a lazy narrative device. Many will have probably forgotten that there has already been a sequel, the hastily produced Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), in which director Joe Berlinger mixed music video aesthetics with found footage to immediately forgettable effect. Blair Witch, which was directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, regular collaborators who made the cheeky-gory horror thriller You're Next (2013) and The Guest (2014), follows The Blair Witch Project's found footage template as well as its narrative structure, resulting in a film that feels more like a remake than a meaningful extension of the story. And, while moments work and Wingard wrings a number of genuine scares out of the material, it ultimately feels so familiar that it's hard to see the point.
The story takes place 17 years after the events in The Blair Witch Project, which found a trio of Clinton-era college students venturing into Maryland's Black Hills Forest to track down the elusive, mythical Blair Witch and never being heard from again. The original film purported to be the found footage of their deadly misadventure, which ends in ambiguously violent fashion. The new film's protagonist, James (James Allen McCune), is the younger brother of Heather, the leader of the group in the earlier film whose disappearance has haunted him since he was 4 years old. Seizing on a YouTube video that was purportedly shot in the Blair Witch's hidden lair and features a fleeting image that James thinks might be Heather, he mounts a new expedition into the woods, joined by Lisa (Callie Hernandez), his girlfriend who just happens to be looking for a subject for her documentary class; his best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid); and Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), an oddball couple who posted the YouTube video and claim to have knowledge of the woods.
Just like Heather's expedition so many years earlier, James's is doomed once they set foot in the cursed woods, where time seems to loop back on itself and leave enormous gaps and the trees form an endless circuit from which they cannot escape. The nights are once again beset with all manner of frightening noises, as the characters huddle and shudder in their tents, the cumulative effect being a gregarious bunch of attractive young people being turned into bickering, paranoid, deeply frightened victims of an unseen force. Against all common sense they have the terrible tendency to wander off by themselves, but even when they stick together there is no hope of escaping the supernatural powers all around them.
Of course, much has changed technologically since the mid-1990s, and the original group's clunky High-8 video and 16mm cameras have been replaced by tiny Blue Tooth-enabled digital cameras that can be mounted over the characters' ears, a remote-piloted drone, and night vision. In other words, Wingard has at his disposal a much larger visual arsenal than Myrick and Sanchez had back in the '90s, which gives him numerous excuses for why there is so much amazing footage that always captures the action in the best possible way. Of course, the film's best scares rely on us not being able to see things or thinking we see things that we don't, and by the end of the film it seems like every shadowy tree is alive and waiting to strike. The actors are all effective in conveying fear, frustration, and outright panic, and Wingard orchestrates some queasily effective moments, including one in which a character with a wounded foot attempts to climb a tree to retrieve the damage drone and another in which a character must squeeze herself through an extreme narrow tunnel, which is sure to give anyone with even an ounce of claustrophobia heart palpitations. But, again we have the problem of overfamiliarity, as each of the film's best moments works as a variation on something we've already seen, to the point that we start wishing they would just be honest and call it a remake.
Copyright 2016 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Lionsgate
Overall Rating: (2)
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