Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriter: Simon Barrett
Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Valorie Curry, Brandon Scott
Rated R | 93 Minutes
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Horror is a genre that exists to be mimicked and imitated. When John Carpenter’s Halloween debuted and shattered box offices in 1978 it started a decade-long slasher craze. While “found footage” films existed before 1999, that year’s surprise smash hit The Blair Witch Project turned a little-used subgenre of horror into the next big thing. Made on a miniscule $60,000 budget, the film grossed over $140 million and finished 10th in the 1999 box office standings. It’s hard to remember a time before the Internet was the biggest thing in Earth, but in 1999 the phrase “going viral” still referred to diseases. Hence when filmmakers spread a viral campaign that insisted that the movie was actually recovered documentary footage and that the filmmakers/actors were lost and maybe dead, people really believed it! Fast forward 17 years and one of the kings of mumblegore, Adam Wingard, revealed at this summer’s SDCC that his upcoming found-footage film The Woods was actually a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. Simply entitled Blair Witch, the film comes out in theaters this Friday, but I was able to attended a press screening last night.
I saw the original Blair Witch Project in a theater that no longer exists and was tremendously impressed by it. While I enjoyed the film, it was the experience that was fascinating. People legitimately didn’t know what they just watched and walked out debating the “realness” of it. I have been a huge fan of the writer/director duo of Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard for years. You’re Next (2011) turned the home invasion thriller on its heels and was wholly original and innovative. Their next feature film was The Guest (2014), a taut, scary thriller with an antagonist resembling both Michael Myers and The Terminator. Suffice to say, I was extremely excited for Blair Witch. Combining Wingard and Barrett’s unique style within the confines of the found-footage subgenre created one of the best found-footage films in years and continued 2016’s strong year in horror films.
James (James Allen McCune) is the younger brother of Heather Donahue, the girl from the original film who disappeared. His friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) is working on a documentary project and when he gets contacted online that new footage from the Burkittsville, Maryland woods may show his sister alive somehow, they gear up. Joining them are James’s childhood friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid). They meet the couple who contacted him and they’re also documenting everything. Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) are locals who grew up around the woods, studied the legends, and more importantly, believe them.
The six head out into the woods in search for the house where Heather and her fellow filmmakers disappeared, discussing the history of the Blair Witch and all the strange occurrences that have plagued Burkittsville for generations. Where this film improves on the original is that the characters are far less annoying (no constant bickering about lost maps), and the dialogue is quick witted and funny without being overt. There’s a great moment where Peter (who is black) is left in awe at Lane’s huge Confederate flag. Later in the film when someone suggests venturing off into the woods at night, the group collectively yells “NO,” a nice departure from the cliches of the genre.
Part of the problem with some found-footage horror films is that they look too produced. Blair Witch has an authentic look, thanks to 17 years of technological improvements. The four friends use new earpiece cameras, and even bring a drone with them. There’s even a clever back and forth between Lisa and Lane discussing Lane’s fondness for old-fashioned video cameras. The quick cutting and frantic pace doesn’t give the viewers much time to breathe. While the quick jolts of sound on the cameras could be tossed away as “jump scares,” Wingard rarely if ever cheats, and the scares are earned. A woman two seats away watched with her line of sight barely above her jacket which lay on top of her.
Much of the film is used to set up its final act, and once that act starts it does NOT stop. It capitalizes on real human fears like darkness, being alone, being lost, and adds a thick layer of supernatural to really create a terrifying environment. The scares come from all angles in this one, and I particularly like what they did with the Ashley character, who is injured early on in the film. Maybe I was overthinking things, but I was getting a serious Evil Dead vibe throughout.
Was Blair Witch a better film than its 17-year-old predecessor? Absolutely. It is well made, stylish, frenetic, funny, and really scary. It shows that good horror writers and directors can thrive in any style of the genre. My one issue is that while it is a better film than the original in all technical ways, this simply won’t and can’t have the cultural impact that The Blair Witch Project had. The original is a film that lives in a time capsule. I’d actually recommend that fans who want to see Blair Witch skip the original. It was too much a product of the time and the marketing to mean anything important to viewers in a world where things go viral literally every few seconds. Wingard and Barrett’s sequel stands alone on its own merits and it succeeds as much for being a good horror film as the original succeeded at being a genius marketing campaign.