US | 2016 | Directed by Adam Wingard
Logline: After watching a video showing what he believes to be his long lost sister’s encounter with a malevolent witch a young man and friends head into the infamous forest in search for her and the truth.
It’s been seventeen years since the found footage of student filmmakers Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard vanishing in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland, was first shown to the world. They had gone in search of a local legend, the Blair Witch, and they found her. The rest is cinema history.
The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first remarkable "found footage" movie, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) holds that title, and sits comfortably on a dark and disturbing mantle of its own. It was a micro-budget, shot-on-video movie titled UFO Abduction (a.k.a. The McPherson Tape) from 1989 (and remade by the same director nine years later) that probably inspired filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez to make The Blair Witch Project. There had been no horror movies using this style or technique for ten years. In the fifteen year wake there has been a glut of “found footage”. A false sense of security shrouds filmmakers' feel with the sub-genre. The harsh reality is, it’s much harder to make a great found footage horror movie than any other.
So what does Adam Wingard do? Well, firstly he presents his new horror movie to excited audiences as The Woods, just to make sure he gets his unsuspecting hooks in. Then he reveals that the movie is actually called Blair Witch, announcing it as a sequel to the original 1999 movie (and completely disregarding the patchy sequel from 2000, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2). Turns out, he hasn’t really made a sequel, he’s delivered a remake of the original. The opening text is very similar, informing the audience that what follows is an assembly of the (digital) footage found in the cameras abandoned in the woods (unnecessary, annoying digital glitches and all).
Most of the same plot points are in place; the characters set off gung-ho, meet some locals, enter the forest, get lost, get frustrated with each other, become confused and are terrorised. There is really nothing new in Wingard’s version, except for a twilight zone interference, the movie’s only genuinely interesting element. It's frustrating, Wingard could've really played something, but he squanders it, and he relies way too much on the "Boo!" jump scares.
Here's the rub: I'm not a fan of Wingard’s movies. I think he’s a vastly overrated. I didn't like You’re Next, or The Guest, or his segments in V/H/S and V/H/S 2. His uneven shifts of tone really annoy me. For some reason I was prepared to give him another chance, thinking maybe, with the potency of the Blair Witch premise he might actually deliver something half-decent. I was wrong. Blair Witch is pointless, a waste of time. It's Wingard's strongest movie, but the reason for that is plainly obvious. I was only reminded of the effortlessly creepy Willow Creek, or the visceral tour-de-force of [REC] (curiously Wingard’s female lead, Carrie Hernandez, bears a striking resemblance to Manuela Velasco), or just how atmospheric and effective the original Blair Witch Project is.
Wingard’s challenge, and where he dropped the ball, was to take the original’s premise and expand on it, take the savvy audiences’ expectations and pounce on them. Rather than repeat the original recipe, give them something more unbridled, savage horror (and something The Witch didn't really deliver!) Instead, Wingard has taken a lazy, desperately safe approach. I’m sure, however, that there will be many viewers - especially those that haven’t seen the original - who will find the movie unnerving, frightening even. But the performances are so dull, with the exception of Hernandez, though at least he used a cast of unknowns. Technically the movie is very proficient, and there is one highly intensely claustrophobic scene, but ultimately the whole movie smacks of hollow contrivance.
As an end-note, I was lucky enough to see The Blair Witch Project about six months before it was released in Australia, so the original - and masterful - online publicity campaign was still in firm effect. It was a publicity campaign unlike anything before it, and it was genius. Unfortunately in the years since the movie’s release, the hype surrounding it, and the plethora of similar movies, has only damaged it irrevocably to younger, more cynical audiences. It’s a shame, the original’s clever use of sound manipulation, the conceptual and directorial ingenuity, combined with the convincing, naturalistic performances, make it easily one of the three most powerful "found footage" horror movies.