17 years ago, The Blair Witch Project took the world by storm and redefined the horror genre. While that film was met with critical acclaim and earned back over 4,000 times its production budget, its sequel was released a mere 15 months later to scathing reviews and a lackluster (but still profitable) box office gross. There was nowhere for the franchise to go after Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 but up, and up it has gone. Blair Witch is a welcome return to form for the series, and while I may not have liked it quite as much as Mr. Disgusting did, I can confirm that it has pulled off the seemingly impossible task of breathing new life into a long thought dead horror series.
Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett (the duo behind You’re Next and The Guest), Blair Witch follows James (James Allen McCune), the brother of the first film’s Heather Donahue. After being sent footage that he believes contains a fleeting glimpse of his long-lost sister, he and his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) head into the woods with their friends Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott) to try to find her. Led by the couple who sent them the footage (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), the group journeys into the middle of the Black Hills Forest and mayhem ensues.
To say anything more about the plot would be a disservice to viewers. Blair Witch is a difficult film to review only because there are so many plot elements that need to be discussed but to do so would constitute as spoilers. I will try to be as spoiler-free as possible from here on out.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. The only major flaw in Blair Witch is that it practically follows the narrative of the original film beat for beat. Yes, there are expansions of the mythology and a few surprises of the Lovecraftian variety, but if you have seen the original film you pretty much know where the story is going from the get-go. That being said, many will find Blair Witch to be more eventful than The Blair Witch Project.
Blair Witch is a sequel to the original film, but it could just of easily had been a remake. In fact, if the character of James did not exist, Blair Witch would be a remake. That isn’t a critique; it is merely an observation. Prior knowledge of the original film isn’t necessary, but the experience won’t be the same without it. The film supplies a decent amount of recapping in the first act without hitting you over the head with exposition. Blair Witch also disregards the events of the misguided sequel Book of Shadows, but the ideas and themes of that film are used to greater effect here.
The big question everyone will have about the film is this: is it scary? The answer is a resounding “yes.” While Wingard and Barrett don’t try too many new things with Blair Witch, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any surprises to be found in the film’s taut 89 minutes (though God help you if you watched that trailer, as it consists primarily of footage from the third act). There are a plethora of jump scares, but the majority of them are effective (one simply involved a hand and it scared the bejesus out of me). It’s not just jump scares in the film though. Those of you who wished that there were more to the climax of the original film will see that wish fulfilled and then some. The last fifth of Blair Witch is a doozy. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t push this review score from a three to a four. It’s just that good.
Blair Witch lacks a musical score, making the sound design that much more effective. Sound design is of utmost importance in a horror film, and the sound team of Blair Witch nails it. Every snapping tree branch and howl of the wind sends chills up the spine. I’m sure the foley team had a field day with this movie. Common flaws with found footage films are also avoided by the film. You will never find yourself asking why the characters are still filming. Barrett has covered his bases remarkably well in that regard.
The performances are all serviceable, but none particularly stand out (though Curry, who was so grating in The Following, is surprisingly likable here). This isn’t necessarily the actors’ faults. Their chemistry with each other is believable, but once shit hits the fan they aren’t really required to do much other than run and scream. They are good at running and screaming though. Casting relative unknowns works in the film’s favor as well, since casting high-profile actors would have been distracting.
While Blair Witch may seem a little too familiar at times, it has enough new ideas to justify its existence (and to erase Book of Shadows from any and all conversations about The Blair Witch Project). Add to that plenty of scares in its latter half and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic sequel to one of the greatest horror films of the 90s. Blair Witch will leave you wanting more in the best way and it just reinvigorated a franchise that was thought to have been killed 16 years ago. If that’s not a cause for a celebration I don’t know what is.