Blair Witch Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriter: Simon Barrett
Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
Rated R | 93 Minutes
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Friday, July 30, 1999. My friends and I — high school kids stuck in a rural, one-stoplight town — piled into a car and drove 30 miles to the nearest movie theater to see The Blair Witch Project on opening night. For all we knew it was real; the recovered, reassembled footage of three student filmmakers who ventured into the Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about the Blair Witch, a local legend. The students were never seen again, and we were about to witness something akin to supernatural snuff — evidence of the strange and inexplicable, the terrifying final moments of three young people.
In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, I threw myself headfirst into the folklore. I was obsessed, watching The Curse of the Blair Witch on the Sci-Fi Channel and using the Internet, new to our neck of the woods, to research the backstories of Rustin Parr, Elly Kedward, and Coffin Rock. The Blair Witch Project was to be our generation’s The Exorcist, but scarier… because it was real. Except it wasn’t. Directed by newcomers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project was a low-budget found-footage flick shot in eight days with first-time actors and hand-held cameras purchased at Circuit City.
Opening night in a packed theater, however, it was real. It wasn’t until the credits rolled that we knew we had been deceived by a brilliant marketing campaign. This wasn’t the recovered footage of a horrific happening – it was a movie, with production assistants, sound mixers, and an art director. Still, there was something eerily effective about the movie – a chill that stayed with you long after the shaky footage faded to black. Whether you consider it a modern masterpiece, a cheap gimmick, or a boring waste of time, The Blair Witch Project changed movies. On a $25,000 budget, it grossed $250 million worldwide, making it the most profitable film of all time. And while it wasn’t the first found-footage film (that would be 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust), it popularized the subgenre, paving the way for movies like Paranormal Activity, REC, Cloverfield, and District 9.
Now, 17 years later, the influential horror film is getting a direct sequel*. Written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, the duo behind You’re Next, The Guest, and the V/H/S series, Blair Witch picks up 20 years after the disappearance of Heather Donahue and her friends Mike and Josh. Heather’s brother James (James Allen McCune) and his friends Peter (Brandon Scott), Ashley (Corbin Reid), and film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez) venture into the Black Hills woods to make a documentary about James’ search for his missing sister.
A pair of backwoods Blair Witch historians, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), offer to guide James and his friends through the impenetrable forest, but it’s unclear what their true motivations are. After spending the night in the Black Hills, the group experiences some strange things – but is it truly something evil, or just the locals playing tricks on them? As they journey deeper into the forest, James and his friends realize that the legend of the Blair Witch isn’t a legend at all – there’s something sinister in the woods, and it won’t let them leave.
Wingard’s film starts off strong, with a fun first act that expands the mythology and updates the found-footage premise with cutting-edge technology like iPhone-controlled drones and discrete ear-mounted cameras. Audiences complained about the first movie’s nauseating camera movements, so these new techniques make for a smoother, less intrusive experience and help explain why the characters keep filming while they’re running for the lives. And run they do. After the group finds stone piles and stick figures at their campsite, everyone starts running around in the dark, screaming each other’s names. “Peter!” “Ashley!” “Where’s Lane!?” You get the picture.
After an underwhelming, downright tedious middle, Blair Witch delivers a claustrophobic finale that is perhaps too beholden to the original film. If you’re going to revisit this property, why not go all-out and deliver an experience that not only pays off the Blair Witch as a character, but the entire found-footage subgenre? What’s the point in playing it safe? By replicating the original film’s ending, albeit with a few new twists and turns, I’m left wondering what the point of all of this was. The film has a lot going for it – a strong cast (Hernandez, Robinson, and Curry are great), an incredible creative team at the helm – but it just isn’t that effective. It isn’t scary (aside from the never-ending jump scares), and it doesn’t have anything interesting to say about the found-footage subgenre or its own mythology.
Maybe I’m the only one who wanted to see the witch in all her grotesque glory. Maybe I’m the only person who wanted to see the Blair Witch actually do something scary in a movie called Blair Witch. Maybe I am, but I’ve got a feeling I’m not. The hype surrounding this film – with pull-quotes like “one of the scariest movies ever made” – will only hurt Wingard’s film once audiences discover that it’s just more of the same. It doesn’t feel like a sequel so much as a sneaky reboot of the original, a way to make a few more movies where hapless campers run around in the dark with cameras, screaming each other’s names.
*Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a meta-sequel about a group of people obsessed with The Blair Witch Project, was released in 2000.