In a metaphorical encyclopedia of film, the definition beneath The Blair Witch Project would be two simple words – hot air. The 1999 seminal horror hit kickstarted the trend of found footage within horror – as well as the mainstream cultural conscious – but outside of an iconic marketing campaign, little of substance remains. It’s a movie that’s cheap, with narrative devoid of pace and obscene in its absence of character motivation. The series returned the very next year – no doubt to capitalize on high public interest – with a horrible sequel, laughably entitled Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. In the scope of a mere two years the Blair Witch series had become drunk off of a potent brew of national recognition, falling by the wayside along with countless other now-forgotten franchises.
Sixteen years later, new blood has taken hold of the series, headlined by the talented direction of modern cult filmmaker Adam Wingard – but the same looming feeling of dread felt in the movies haunts the production of this new film. Can this sequel simultaneously conjure new terror within its franchise and compete in the saturated landscape of found footage movies? Can it outpace the enormous shadow cast by the dismal original?
Blair Witch – formerly shown under the guise of fake title The Woods – follows a group of college students, as well as a pair of local tag-alongs, as they venture into Maryland’s Black Hills Forest in search of clues regarding the disappearance of one of the siblings of the group. Investigation and further travel deeper into the woods invoke a series of strange events and supernatural occurrences, pointing to the only logical explanation the group can come up with; the legends of the forest were all too true. James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid star as the curious college kids, while Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry complete the small cast as the local ne’er-do-well’s looking to stir up the legends.
In studied retrospective, The Blair Witch Project is a bad prototype of the evolved handheld genre, absence of a recognizable template and lacking in outright scares. 2016’s Blair Witch remedies all of this by aping the recently deceased Paranormal Activity template, adding a healthy dose of its own ingenuity and edge in the process. Right from the beginning the motivation of our cast of characters – who are far better actors than the cast of the original -, is established, streamlined, and consistent all the way till the end of the picture. This movie shines light years ahead of the original in technical aspects, adding drones and face cameras to create distinct shots and add better balance visually. From a story standpoint, the film doubles down beyond the original, underhandedly sliding hints to the impending doom cleverly within dialogue, roping off interesting character shifts within the investigation and threading hits of mind-boggling twists in for good measure. Healthy doses of jump-scares and chilling moments of claustrophobia counter each other throughout the runtime, boiling into shocking moments the series has never seen the likes of. Unlike the original, the action is on full display, ending with the reveal of one of cinema’s most elusive figures in one of the best moments of the film.
However, revamping the Blair Witch franchise while utilising the tools of modern found-footage horror hits also pulls in their many flaws sadly. The film, despite the creepy iconography and new angles, plays just like any found-footage movie that’s come out in the past five years. It’s a premise we’ve see all too many times before: group of kids are faced against a supernatural entity, never getting a real chance to fight or escape until they are all picked off one by one, and the camera drops to the ground. All sense of tension through possible conclusions beyond death is dispelled, since it’s ‘found-footage’ and has been complied after the fact – meaning that, essentially, you’re spending an hour and a half watching stupid kids waltzing to unceremonious deaths. Beyond the cheap scares, the characters of the movie hold little intrigue outside a few endearing jokes early on and a couple of compelling snap-decisions made while under pressure. Interesting characters are the thing of note within the films of Adam Wingard but here, the need to revamp everything somehow avoided seeping into the characters.
In comparison to other media, Blair Witch is the Creed or Force Awakens of its franchise; a sequel reworking the bricks of the original into a tighter and contemporary film. For all intents and purposes, Blair Witch easily strides past its predecessors, being technically and cinematically better than anything brought to the series in a long time. Yet, in a marketplace saturated with found footage ghost flicks every other month, Blair Witch does little to make up for the flaws that it picks up on the road to rejuvenation.