It’s shocking that it’s been seventeen years since the original The Blair Witch Project film debuted in theatres and took the world by storm. That film is the granddaddy of found footage films, despite the fact that Paranormal Activity gets most of the credit when it revitalized the genre a full eight years later. Now it’s time for a new Blair Witch (this is actually the second sequel, the first Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released in 2000, but few remember it fondly. Check out Bloody Disgusting’s editorial on why the film actually has merit).
What struck me while watching the new film by acclaimed director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) is that this new interpretation faces a fairly significant uphill battle. Horror films nowadays are very different from the late 90s. Not only has Paranormal Activity and its countless imitators diluted the potency of found footage films, modern audiences are more savvy and jaded.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Blair Witch is a competent, albeit underwhelming film. Perhaps if this was your introduction to the franchise, it would work better. As someone with fond (albeit hazy) memories of the original film, the new film feels like a reductive rehash. People running through the woods? Check. Strange sounds and figures in the night? Check? A derelict cottage full of dead ends? Check. Basically everything from the original film has been brought back, upgraded with better quality video (and a drone to boot!), but there’s not a lot that’s new or novel here.
Take the plot: A bland group of generic characters enter the woods in Burkittsville, MA hoping to find Heather Donohue, the heroine of the original film who is revealed to be the sister of new lead James (James Allen McCune). After spending an alarming night in the forest, the group discovers the same stick figures from the original film and decides to make a run for it back to the cars. Disorientation, GPS failure and panic soon follow, leaving the group stranded in the woods and ready to be picked off one by one. It’s no surprise when the survivors stumble across an abandoned cottage in the final act, setting up a familiar climax that may have been intended as a homage, but ultimately comes across as unoriginal.
The characters are part of the problem. The familial connection puts us firmly in sequel territory, but James fails to establish himself as a compelling protagonist; outside of his desire to locate his sibling, he’s basically just a milquetoast straight white guy. The two characters of colour, Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott), fare even worse, barely rising above the level of caricature and adhering to the outdated genre tradition of black characters going out early. At least locals Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) aren’t portrayed as backwater yokels, though their presence is barely felt. In fact the only decent character (and the real lead if screen time and amount of suffering count) is Lisa (Callie Hernandez), James’ strong willed documentary filmmaker friend. Lisa is the sole memorable character and her gauntlet of terror in the basement in the final act is one of the film’s strongest sequences.
All of this may sound as though I detested the film, but that’s not true. The entire third act when the shit hits the fan in the derelict cottage is great, particularly the marriage of set design, handheld camera and shaky lighting. The early parts in the woods feel too rushed, as though Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett don’t trust the audience to stick around as they build tension and expand on mythology. There’s nothing particularly frightening about the woods, despite the falling trees and the overpowering soundtrack (which is arguably one of the film’s greatest assets and frequently put to good use). Even one of the best scenes – a gross-out moment involving Ashley and an infected injury – suffers in comparison to The Ruins, which did it first and did it better.
Ultimately I’m just unsure who the film’s audience is. Fans of the original seeking a nostalgic trip down memory lane will almost certainly be disappointed by the new film’s lack of originality. Younger audiences may be interested in the film’s accelerated pacing, but the implied (as opposed to shown) kills coupled with shaky cam fatigue could prove problematic. Blair Witch isn’t a bad film, but I’m not convinced this is the best use of Adam Wingard’s talent or that the script does enough to justify what is essentially just a remake. In a year when horror films are getting great reviews and hitting box office heights, I’m not convinced Blair Witch is up to snuff.