Director Adam Wingard & writer Simon Barrett have made an exciting reputation for themselves with their last two feature film collaborations: the home invasion subversion You’re Next & (my personal favorite) the action thriller by way of John Carpenter horror The Guest. Unfortunately, their usual knack for subversion & experimentation within genre bounds is mostly checked at the door in their latest feature, the years-late sequel/reboot hybrid Blair Witch. In the years since its 1999 release the original The Blair Witch Project has earned a growing reputation as being one of the greatest American horror films of all time, but has also suffered the misfortune of inspiring an entire subgenre of imitators. In the late 90s a found footage, documentary-style horror played like a game-changing innovation, to the point where some audiences were even convinced that the film was “real.” In 2016 the gimmick can feel a little tired & old hat. For every found footage horror that feels exciting & fresh (Creep, Unfriended) there’s a heap of examples that feel unnecessary & more than a little bit silly (The Visit, They’re Watching, Cloverfield, Exists, Da Hip Hop Witch, etc.). That’s why it’s a shame that Wingard & Barrett delivered such a straightforward found footage horror here. There are some interesting, bizarre ideas & rug pulls that shape their Blair Witch film, but they’re not pushed nearly far enough to distinguish the final product from the billion other The Blair Witch Project devotees we’ve encountered since 1999. Blair Witch finds Barrett & Wingard working in the straightforward genre picture mode they started their careers with in the horror anthology V/H/S when the film desperately needed the prankster spirit they brought to You’re Next & The Guest.
There’s not much of a plot to spoil in Blair Witch if you’re already experienced the original film. In this version of the story the younger brother of one of The Blair Witch Project’s documentarians/victims ventures back into the woods to investigate his sister’s mysterious disappearance. The original film was a search for the truth about an old world mystery. This followup is, by contrast, a search for closure. As the missing woman’s disappearance is well over a decade in the past, her brother is presumably less hopeful about actually finding her than he is about finding what happened to her. Over the course of the film, in a way, he finds a little of both, but the answers come in the form of violence and more questions (duh). The narrative setups to these films don’t really matter all too much, though. They’re basically excuses to a) get young potential victims to the woods and b) commit to a classic horror film dynamic where out of towners are punished for scoffing at locals’ superstitions. Blair Witch mirrors the basic structure of its source material to the point where it occupies the same sequel/reboot gray area of titles like Ghostbusters (2016) & The Force Awakens. The only noticeable update in the film’s basic structure is in the quality of technology available to the film student documentarians capturing the strange, spooky happenings of the woods. There’s as much focus on gear here as there is in Russ Meyer’s love letter to pinup photography, Heavenly Bodies!, with a wealth of shots devolving into people filming each other filming with various gadgets: old camcorders, state of the art Cannons, drones, earpiece cameras (which affords the film a few scenes of a Hardcore Henry style of 1st person POV), etc. It’s a detail that points to both the passage of time between the two films (especially in moments where the HQ digital photography of today clashes with the standard definition DV tapes of old) & the sequel’s reverence for found footage aesthetic (while also poking a little fun at it as a contrivance). However, it can also feel like wasted time in a film that mostly plays by the rules of its genre, never pushing that aspect to the point of self-aware parody.
That’s not to say that Blair Witch is a strict retread of its predecessor, however. Wingard & Barrett do seek out a few opportunities to pull the rug from under the audience, especially in the film’s final act. If there’s an essential difference between Blair Witch & The Blair Witch Project in terms of narrative approach, it’s that the original film was dedicated to the process of telling while the modern version lives by the virtues of showing. The 1999 feature sidesteps depicting onscreen violence by coding its witchcraft folklore into simplistic visual cues like stick figures & characters staring into the corner. The 2016 version somewhat blasphemously trades in that atmospheric terror with real, physical manifestations of its witchcraft: objects moving on their own, body horror in a pulsating, infected wound, visual confirmation that the titular witch is indeed a physical entity, etc. What’s much more interesting, though, is the way the film carves out new, original forms of terror in its play with the otherworldly logic of the woods. Time & space shift in unexpected, unsettling ways that help mark the film’s shift within its franchise from authenticity to entertainment. In its better moments Blair Witch deals in go-for-broke abstraction that somehow makes the expansiveness of Nature feel like a tightly confined space. There’s enough weirdness in the film’s final stretch that suggests that Blair Witch could’ve stood as a much stranger outlier in the found footage oeuvre were it pushed further into the directions teased by the perception-shifting instincts of its black magic spookiness. Instead, it plays like a competent, but obedient genre exercise.
In a lot of ways the mistake Blair Witch makes mirrors the folly of its protagonist: you can’t return to the past. The shaky-cam addled slowburn of the film’s opening pays plenty tribute to what made its source material so striking in 1999, but that territory has been explored a few dozen too many times in the years since to remain fresh or exciting. There’s a value to a steady camera & a cinematic eye, as evidenced by this year’s other found footage update, 10 Cloverfield Lane, but Blair Witch does manage to find other modes of blasphemy in its rug pull of a third act without ditching the found footage gimmick. It just isn’t nearly blasphemous enough. A lot of the leadup to what makes Blair Witch distinct could’ve been condensed to shorthand, given how familiar the film’s story & character beats are to anyone who’s seen a found footage horror before, and that change would’ve left a lot more room for the reality-shifting finale to run wild & free. Blair Witch is a perfectly solid genre exercise in found footage’s now-familiar thrills & chills, falling just on the right side of the divide between entertainment & tedium. If Wingard & Barrett weren’t involved this review wouldn’t likely have such a vague air of disappointment, but rather a tone of acceptance & routine. Then again, I likely wouldn’t have rushed to watch the film in the first place without their involvement, given the dime-a-dozen nature of post-The Blair Witch Project found footage fare.
For Wingard & Barrett Blair Witch stands as a step back to their humble beginnings in the serviceable horror anthology V/H/S. For a no-name, workman filmmaker that humble beginnings aspect wouldn’t be much of a detriment, but I’ve come to expect more from these two. Blair Witch boasts a few moments of flashy weirdness & reality-bending excitement that made the exercise feel at least worthwhile. Yet, on the whole the film feels a little regressive considering the immense talents who delivered it & how much it’s rooted in tradition.