I remember riding home from the movie theatre on my bike one warm July evening in 1999. I had seen The Blair Witch Project, and I was more than a little aware of my surroundings in an above average capacity. There were no woods along my route home, but let’s be honest, danger can come from anywhere, to anyone, even three kids shooting a movie in rural Maryland. I’ve always considered one’s ability to buy what The Blair Witch Project was selling as directly tied to how well their imagination could stretch, but no matter how elastic something is, it must inevitably snap back. To wit: Blair Witch.
Now horror fans have been tremendously blessed this year, and not just by original works like The Witch or Don’t Breath; even sequels like The Conjuring 2 and The Purge: Election Year have managed to mix it up while still staying true to their core. The promise of Blair Witch, the first direct sequel to The Blair Witch Project, was that Adam Wingard was behind the camera, and conventional he is not. Reasonably, seeing his name on the movie poster after the likes of You’re Next and The Guest, should we not expect something more than what’s essentially a remake of the ’99 film? Apparently not.
Having said that though, it’s an extremely well-made and effective remake. Wingard and writer Simon Barrett bring their customary humour to the affair, and Wingard clearly knows how to make something scary. He also understands the lessons of The Blair Witch Project, that if the conceit of found footage is to work then the camera can’t be omnipresent and capture every little detail. For the audience, like the hapless kids on screen, the frightening part is in not completely understanding the danger, only being able to see it in glimpses and hear it in the noises nearby and letting your mind fill in the details. That’s scary!
So all things being equal, Blair Witch is a great cover of the original movie, or a great movie in its own right if that first movie had never happened. It follows all the rules of the perfect sequel in that it does everything the first movie did but bigger, louder and with more money. Plus, more cameras! Hurray for digital technology because now everybody going into the Black Hills Forrest can have their own ear piece camera as well as a top of the line pro-sumer DSLR and even a drone! The conceit is still the same though, a group of young people go into the woods to make a documentary, but there’s personal stakes: one of the kids is trying to find out what happened to his sister, one of the people from the original film crew.
Wingard assembled a perfectly photogenic group of young people to play the kids. You have James (James Allen McCune), who’s the one in search of answers; Peter (Brandon Scott), his best friend; Ashley (Corbin Reid) Peter’s girlfriend; and Lisa (Callie Hernandez), the aspiring documentarian. Along the way we encounter Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), local Blair Witch experts who come along for the ride. Curry may be the most recognizable of the cast thanks to two years as a serial killer acolyte on Fox’s The Following, so at least she’s got experience, but Blair Witch doesn’t really test anyone’s thespian toolkit beyond screaming and running.
The shame of it is that Wingard seems to and one point had an idea where he could have taken the concept of the Blair Witch in strange new directions. For example, along with the genuine humour that comes out of seeing the kids joke around and interact with each other on that carefree first day in the woods, there’s a moment where Wingard toys with the idea that the whole haunted woods affair is a blatant fraud perpetuated by the locals. That could have lead to some interesting twists as the audience is forced as ask if the whole Blair Witch thing was phony in the first place, and playing into the real life ad campaign from ’99 that was created to make you think it was actually real. As the kids felt comfortable that they were being led by the nose, I felt comfortable that Wingard was really going to screw with my head in the back half of the movie. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Instead, the director goes right back to what you would expect as the kids hear more noises in the woods, catch glimpses of weird things with their stylish camera ear pieces that never seem to run out of battery power, and encounter easy bake weirdness in the form of stick men and rock piles. Wingard ratchets up the tension as night falls and never seems to go away, but without the grungy, indie authenticity of the ’99 Blair Witch, the foreboding doesn’t stay with you. In the end, Wingard has thrown so much at you that you just want it to be over. And as you’re told at the beginning of the film, this footage was found abandoned, so the fate our new film friends is pretty much written on the wall in bloody handprints.
If the test of a scary movie though is whether or not it makes you jump, then Blair Witch succeeds at that much because there were a couple of good bumps along the way. I credit that to Wingard’s skill as a movie craftsman that in spite of the movie’s problems with structure and plot, it can at least still hit you directly on the nerve endings a couple of times. On the flipside, craft is the problem with Blair Witch, there’s too much of it. Like with the found footage inheritors of the first Blair Witch, in the back of your mind is the fact that you’re watching actors who are alive and well. It’s a product. A product made with skill, but a product just the same.
Perhaps to Wingard goes the credit that he didn’t think himself more clever than the original filmmakers, which was the fault of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the sequel no one wants to talk about even though it featured a cast of genuinely talented actors led by Jeffrey Donovan, and was directed by an award-winning documentary filmmaker in Joe Berlinger. The fault in that movie is that it was so obsessed with being meta-textual – and because it was being made on a egg timer – it was somewhat inevitable that Shadows became a mess. Wingard learned better, I guess. If you can’t improve on success, at least duplicate it.