Silver Screen: Blair Witch *1/2
There’s an essential, irreconcilable difference between 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and the 2016 do-over sequel Blair Witch. In 1999, cheap, convenient digital cameras were a relatively new development, lending novelty to the notion of a movie filmed entirely by the characters. In 2016, everybody films themselves doing everything, and it’s exhausting.
The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found-footage horror film— for that you’ll have to watch 1980’s fascinating but sometimes revolting, hard-to-recommend Cannibal Holocaust, where director Ruggero Deodato established the template for the genre in a movie far too unpalatable to have mainstream success.
Deodato’s conception and execution was remarkably modern, complete with casting unknown actors who he insisted go into temporary hiding to perpetuate the idea that the shocking film really was a lost documentary. Blair Witch Project directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez employed a similar ruse with one of the earliest viral-marketing campaigns to use the internet to conjure its own urban legend.
In the nearly two decades since, audiences have become savvy to the genre’s tricks and tropes, so much that Blair Witch director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (the team behind the nifty You’re Next and The Visitor) don’t really bother with the façade. Some of the actors here are familiar— I vaguely recall one of them getting eaten on The Walking Dead. Wingard spends almost no time establishing mood, instead rushing through early scenes as mere means of obligatory character introductions.
The story here is that the apparently much younger brother of original Blair Witch victim Heather Donahue, also known as the redhead from the old Steak ‘n’ Shake commercials, is now a grown-up paramedic named James (James Allen McCune), and he has found a video clip online that he believes proves his sister is still alive in the woods. Which is almost more improbable than the idea that she was killed by a witch, but whatever.
His friends (Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott) agree to accompany him to search the woods where the original “documentary” was shot. His would-be girlfriend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) insists on filming the ordeal for her own school documentary project. It’s a pretty crummy thing to do to a guy whose sister possibly died just off camera in the same scenario. (It’s also bizarre how seemingly unaware the characters are of the previous documentary, which in the world of the movie would be actual found footage. Or how oblivious they seem to the meta-documentary notion of making a documentary about somebody else who died making a documentary— which also happens to be the plotline of Cannibal Holocaust, but I digress.)
The too-old-to-be-this-dumb young adults wander off into the woods. They’re joined by creepy local videographers Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who posted the potential footage of Heather and seem a little too excited to be part of the group.
Wingard and Barrett mostly eschew the original film’s slow-burning storyline, which gradually accrued menace as the characters interviewed cagey townsfolk about the spooky history of their rural village. Instead, they hustle as quickly as possible into the dark woods.
This would be fine if they replaced the original’s foreboding-turned-paranoid atmosphere with... well, with much of anything. Instead they take the same easy route as the increasingly lame Paranormal Activity sequels, upping the ante on camera gimmicks to put a slightly different perspective on the same old concept. But whereas Paranormal Activity III’s camera mounted on an oscillating fan at least provided one terrific bit of suspense, Blair Witch’s drone camera adds nothing.
This annoying, misbegotten sequel wisely ignores the much-loathed Blair Witch II: Book of Shadows, but it’s only marginally better. The 2016 incarnation seems curiously targeted at people who are nostalgic for the original without really liking it.
Detractors complained about The Blair Witch Project’s lack of an eventful climax. Wingard and Barrett address this with a frantic but ultimately tiresome ending that shows blurry glimpses of the title monster, à la bad footage of Bigfoot, but doesn’t pay much of anything else off. A few subplots are half-baked ideas and abandoned with no explanation.
The 2016 Blair Witch model is a shaky, staticky slog that’s a bit slicker than the original but lacks all the eerie charm and commitment to the concept. It might barely even qualify as a horror movie if the characters didn’t constantly sneak up and surprise one another to gin up jump scares.
Your time would be much better spent watching last year’s Unfriended, a far superior spiritual successor to Blair Witch that similarly uses modern technology to give a new look to an old-fashioned ghost story, or last winter’s fantastic The Witch, which makes infinitely better use of a creepy woodland setting while actually paying off with some honest-to-godless witchcraft.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.