Blair Witch (2016)

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three star

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Da Hip Hop Witch (2000)

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halfstar

campstamp

When Britnee & I used to work together in New Orleans East, she once gently pressured me into taking a couple DVDs out of the trunk of her car that even she couldn’t stomach, despite typically having a much stronger fortitude than I do when it comes to total shit cinema. One of those putrid slices of schlock was Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, a movie so amateur that I had a hard time convincing myself that it was an actual, legitimate feature film & not some 80s punks’ super 8 home movies. The other was Da Hip Hop Witch, which I am sad to report is most certainly not a legitimate feature. It is, without question, a home movie (this time filmed on a camcorder instead of a super 8 camera). It just happens to be a home movie that features a long list of famous (and not-so-famous) rappers. Even accounting for the “film”‘s straight-to-DVD cheapness, it’s difficult to pull any entertainment value from Da Hip Hop Witch, except maybe from the schadenfreude of watching Eminem embarrass himself.

Because it is the sole moment of genuinely entertaining content in the movie, I’m going to transcribe here the entirety of Da Hip Hop Witch‘s prologue: “In December 1989, in the Newark Projects, there were a series of unsolved attacks and one murder. Residents claimed that it was an angry spirit, who became known as ‘The Black Witch of the Projects’. Ten years later, the attacks began again. This time, occurring in every inner city project on the East Coast and targeting every Rap star in the Hip Hop scene. An aspiring reporter determined to find out the truth and five white kids & a pug from the suburbs were determined to become famous for capturing Da Hip Hop Witch.” I promise that passage is much more fun than a proper plot synopsis would be. The only other chuckle-worthy bit of text in the film is the line, “Yo, check it! This is Salem, Massachusetts. You know, the place the witches are from?” Dear God. That about sums it up for the film’s enjoyable dialogue. For the other 90 minutes of runtime you’re pretty much left to fend for yourself.

If you haven’t yet guessed based on the film’s title, release date, or the phrase “The Black Witch of the Projects” in the prologue, Da Hip Hop Witch is a found footage Blair Witch Project spoof. Just by genre alone, the movie may already sound lazy to the uninitiated, but I swear it gets worse from there. More than half of the film’s runtime consists of staged street interviews in which famous rappers call the titular witch a bunch of names, coming off a lot like foul-mouthed schoolyard bullies. Imagine Eminem, Pras, Mobb Deep, Vanilla Ice, Ja Rule, and (for reasons unknown) graduation dances staple Vitamin C mumbling things like “That fucking bitch,” and “I was like, oh my God, what is up with this fucking bitch?” and you pretty much get the gist of what the film has to offer. To keep up the appearance that it has some sort of narrative structure, there are some non-Hip Hop Witch TV (as the interviews are dubbed in the film) storylines involving some late 90s, dreds-rocking, white hip hop kids & an investigative journalist all attempting to prove that Da Hip Hop Witch is a hoax created to sell records & garner buzz. Unfortunately, Da Hip Hop Witch is very real, and so is this piece of shit movie.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Da Hip Hop Witch is that it wastes a pretty killer title. I like the decades-late idea of a blaxploitation horror comedy like Blackenstein or Blacula (those are real movies, in case you’re wondering) updated for the late 90s/early 00s era. Besides the prologue & a laughably bad, Russ Meyer-esque tour of Salem’s street signs, though, the only value the film brings to the world is in embarrassing Eminem, as mentioned earlier. According to some reports, the blowhard, dickhole rapper’s lawyers attempted, but failed, to have his part removed from the film entirely & also tried to completely block the film’s distribution. A lot of the dialogue in Da Hip Hop Witch ranges from the misogynistic (women are feared & ridiculed because they might be the witch) to the transphobic (there’s a whole lot of “She looks like a man!” bullshit), but Eminem’s street interviews are are particularly cringe-worthy as they go on & on about how the witch tried to finger him. He just endlessly rambles about the witch’s “basketball fingers” and his own precious butthole to a near-obsessive degree and because he was such a hot comoddity at the time of Da Hip Hop Witch‘s release date, they kept every embarrassing second of it. If you dislike Eminem as strongly as I do, Da Hip Hop Witch provides a deeply satisfying feeling of knowing that he hated his contribution as much as he did, but the movie was released anyway.

The only stipulation is that the movie is so horrifically unwatchable that most people will never be able to participate in Eminem’s public shaming. Vanilla Ice also gets his fare share of embarrassments here, as Da Hip Hop Witch was filmed during his nu metal phase, but that detail is honestly more sad than it is satisfying. Every other rapper (and there are dozens involved that I haven’t bothered to list here) get by more or less unscathed. Ultimately, who cares who’s involved, since Da Hip Hop Witch isn’t a real feature film anyway? It’s a DVD version of a home movie that never should have left the confines of Britnee’s trunk. Well, Eminem cares. When the film was set to be re-released in 2003 (what? how? why?) the rapper managed to have its cover art that prominently featured his likeness scrapped before it reached the shelves, reportedly under undisclosed, Shady circumstances. As terrible as Da Hip Hop Wtich is on the whole, Eminem’s reluctant involvement still shines as a beacon of delectable embarrassment from within. I wouldn’t say that the full experience was worth it for that aspect, but it honestly didn’t hurt.

-Brandon Ledet