by Philip Price
Full disclosure: I've never seen “The Blair Witch Project.” I haven't seen its rushed sequel, “Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows,” either though I hear that's not a bad thing. Being the oldest of my siblings only meant the rules were enforced hardest on me and despite being a solid 12 years old when the original film debuted in the summer of 1999 I wasn't allowed to see it. What it became within the landscape of pop culture is now unavoidable as it more or less spurned the idea of what became a genre all its own. When “The Blair Witch Project” premiered over 15 years ago though, there was no such thing as "found footage" movies and so it was an experience moviegoers had never had before (or so I'm told). It wasn't a gimmick as much as “Paranormal Activity” would relay itself to be a decade later, but rather that original ‘Blair Witch’ carried itself with the air of a documentary – something authentic that audiences shouldn't necessarily be seeing. The fact I'd never seen the original dawned on me more heavily when it was announced at Comic-Con this past summer that the new film from director Adam Wingard (“You're Next,” “The Guest”) previously titled “The Woods” was actually a third entry in the long-stagnant ‘Blair Witch’ franchise. Given the aforementioned affect it had on pop culture and that the film itself had become more a reference point than a talking point for the actual content it provided, I wondered if it would be better to finally see what all the fuss was about or simply go in cold; hoping for an experience that might capture the same feeling of terror the original conjured up in so many. Of course, given the circumstances, that latter hope could never actually be realized considering the ways cinema has transformed in the last 17 years. It seems that with “The Blair Witch” films, time is simply not on my side. Too young for the original and too seasoned to now be deceived by the found footage-style of filmmaking it's as if I was destined to never realize the full potential of this series. I can acknowledge that and it is discouraging I can never view the original the way the filmmakers intended, but on its own terms the new ‘Blair Witch’ does nothing new for the genre of "scary movies" and that would be true even if it wasn't based on a 17-year-old idea. This film could have come out today with no previous films in its canon with no variance of opinion in that ‘Blair Witch’ is a middle of the road horror flick with some nice ideas and even a couple of genuinely frightening moments that don't parlay into enough of a sucker punch to send us running from the theater.
Completely ignoring what happened in ‘Book of Shadows’ (again, or so I'm told) Wingard's ‘Blair Witch’ begins by introducing us to Heather Donahue's younger brother, James (James Allen McCune), who believes he has discovered a video showing what he believes to be his sister's experiences in the demonic woods of the Blair Witch aka, The Blair Witch Project. Naturally, James and a group of his friends including childhood buddy Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter's girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) and James' other friend/film student/maybe love interest Lisa (Callie Hernandez), all decide to head into the forest in search of his lost sibling with Lisa providing the cameras and current technology that will document it all. From the outset what is meant to differentiate this new ‘Blair Witch’ from that of its predecessor is the change in technology that has occurred. By giving Lisa equipment such as a drone, GPS trackers/locators, and Bluetooth-like cameras that the characters wear on their ears the film is automatically able to give us better quality footage than most of what we see from the found-footage genre as well as offering multiple perspectives and intelligent ways for which our protagonists might combat the haunting stories that surround these mysterious woods. Before entering the Black Hills of Burkittsville, Md., though, the James gang meets up with locals Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) who supposedly found the tape that James believes his sister could be on. Lane and Talia agree to show James and his friends where they found the tape on the condition they allow them to tag along. Ultimately having no other choice the six young adults, seeming to range in age from 20 to 25, set out past the, "No Entry After Nightfall," sign and into what unfortunately turns out to be a monotonous set of obstacles and jump scares with not enough character development to pad the running time before the final half hour really jumps things into gear setting up a final 15 to 20 minutes that is the relentless and creatively frightening piece one might hope the entire film to be.
And so, the good: the main cast of characters are fine if not excessively appealing. All of the performers come off as real as one can hope in this day and age – none overly aching to fit into one group/type of people, but more these are average folks who happen to have an emotional connection and reason for why they'd do something as crazy as wander back into what are likely haunted woods. The exceptions here are obviously the Lane and Talia characters who, having grown up in Burkittsville, have become fascinated with the lore and the mystery surrounding the hills that surround their homes. Though Robinson has the showiest role as far as outright theatrics go, he still plays things with an edge of realness in that the character of Lane clearly takes all of this very seriously. The necessary exposition tells us James is an EMT and that Lisa is present just as much due to her friendship with James as she is for what could potentially be a gold mine of footage. We're also presented with the indications Peter somewhat resents Lisa for taking advantage of his life-long friend and his quest for closure while Ashley is meant to serve as the peacekeeper between the two. And so, the bad: one would think the film might use these dynamics in order to create more tension among the people the script is placing in these dire situations, but as soon as Lane and Talia show up all of the animosity shifts to them leaving the rest of the cast to act suspicious toward the obvious members of the group and then wander into genre trappings as they are picked off one by one before being thrust into a climactic third act of action and horror that is literally and structurally only stumbled upon so that the film may find some way to wrap things up. The film hits some positive notes in exploring the way in which the forest manipulates time and space and there are some cool ideas around these concepts that the movie digs into in those final 15 minutes, but for the hour prior there is little more than people walking through the woods and jumping every time they hear something in the distance. This leaves so much more to be desired as the indicators are there to be put in motion and we're clearly building to what can be nothing but a lose/lose situation and yet for the longest time one can't help but feel bored instead of scared to death.
Most of all, ‘Blair Witch’ is disappointing because it's familiar. It's ridiculous to put the same set of expectations on a 17 year-later sequel for not being as striking or original as the legacy that follows the first film now and it's not even that this new ‘Blair Witch’ has to bring something new to the scary movie genre, but to at its most basic level be entertaining and/or intriguing a horror film must execute the tropes it's going to abide by in interesting and well-done ways. ‘Blair Witch’ does this some of the time, but most of the time it simply feels as if we could be watching any number of "kids lost in the woods" movies. What makes the film easier to recommend though, with the caveat of it being fine without being anything special, is that it delivers in the end and has a solid enough payoff for sitting through some of the more meandering moments that we don't mind doing so as much. Without going into too much detail there are two specific moments within the last 20 minutes of the film that caused legitimate chills to run down my arm and then another sequence featuring a confined space that is almost palpable to the point I wanted to stand up from my seat just to make sure I still could. It is moments such as these – moments that creep into you that the film could have used in more varied points rather than throwing them all at the audience in the final act. ‘Blair Witch’ is a movie that conveys the thought of what's happening being creepier that what is actually being shown on screen. The idea that when night falls that space and time somewhat become their own thing to each individual or that, when they finally stumble upon the house that James' sister went into at the end of the original, there is an inherent sense of panic and frustration when it becomes apparent nothing is as it seems. Those are innately haunting ideas. That there are no rules to which this ominous antagonist plays by and so there is no way of abiding by or outsmarting that antagonist is even further proof the film has a strong concept to play with. These are all scary thoughts, but unfortunately Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett, while clearly fans of both the genre and the original film in particular, just don't present enough interesting ways to make the scares as frightening or the story as riveting as it needs to be in order to render this new sequel necessary.