It’s always weird revisiting a film that changed the game in ways that are still prominent so many years later. On the one hand, you’ve got to respect a film that delivered that first breakthrough and did something new in a way that no one had ever really done before. On the other hand, so many years of trial and error — not to mention audience fatigue — tend to advance that same breakthrough in such a way that the progenitor feels dated and quaint by comparison.
Take The Blair Witch Project, for example. What made that film such a cultural cornerstone? It was an indie film that found its following by word-of-mouth on the nascent Internet, which is now something we practically take for granted. It was a found footage horror film, like the veritable plague of found footage horror films that came out in a years-long trend we’re only now just getting past. It was a film that got huge box office returns and effective scares from a minimal budget, same as half of all the horror movies made within the past ten years or so. It teased out mysteries, with compelling setups and few if any payoffs, a strategy that has come to power entire franchises (Prometheus, Cloverfield, etc.) and successful careers. (Go to hell, Damon Lindelof.)
Given the current state of horror films, not to mention the industry’s ongoing obsession with rehashing pre-9/11 properties, it seems almost inevitable that we’d revisit the Blair Witch right now. Even though the last time we revisited the Blair Witch, we ended up with a sequel so notoriously godawful that everyone unanimously agreed to pretend it never happened. It’s natural that we want to know more about the Blair Witch and the answers behind all the movie’s questions, but that’s a tricky business when ambiguity was such a huge part of the original film’s appeal. After all the intricate setup, compounded by almost 20 years’ worth of anticipation and fan theorizing, the end result had better be damned spectacular if it’s not going to disappoint.
So who’s taking on Blair Witch? Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, both of whom were previously responsible for You’re Next and The Guest. Two films with impeccable style and retro sensibility, but hampered by underwhelming stories. So really, this one could’ve gone either way.
The plot to this one is very straightforward: We’ve got four dumb twenty-somethings who go out into the Black Hills Forest to shoot another documentary about the Blair Witch. Our de facto protagonist is a paramedic named James Donahue (James Allen McCune), the grown-up younger brother of Heather Donahue from the first film. His gal pal (Lisa, played by Callie Hernandez) is our resident documentarian and tech expert. They’re joined by James’ best friend since childhood (Peter, played by Brandon Scott), who’s our useless and hopelessly idiotic skeptic. Rounding out the group is Peter’s similarly useless girlfriend (Ashley, played by Corbin Reed).
The catalyst for this story is a blurry YouTube video comprised of footage discovered just outside Burkittsville. And the footage contains a brief shot of someone who may or may not be Heather. So James goes out to Burkittsville with his friends to meet the locals who found and uploaded the footage: siblings Lane and Talia, respectively played by Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry. They agree to take James and company to where the footage was found, but only if they get to come along on the trip.
Our victim pool established, things of course go terribly wrong.
To start with, it should be little surprise that the shaky-cam “found footage” style is completely intact. This naturally comes with a variety of problems in terms of aesthetics and plot holes that will turn away anyone who’s already sick to death of the style. Sure, the filmmakers try to gloss over these problems by way of earpiece cameras and drone cameras, but it’s still anyone’s guess how these cameras and their unlimited batteries are able to stay perfectly intact, to say nothing of all the data cards our characters must be lugging around.
That aside, the film’s real strength is in how it plays with subtle story points from the previous film. For example, the first film was all about a group of college kids who get lost in the woods. This film goes a step further, implying that both sets of characters are caught in a sort of loop where the usual rules of time and space don’t apply. Then the film goes a step further and splits our characters into two groups that experience time and space in very different ways. That was really clever and it pays off in some neat ways.
The pacing to this film is exceptional. We start out in the wide open world, then we go to a forest that seems to stretch on forever. And then without even knowing it, we’re stuck in a strange sort of pattern in which time doesn’t move as it usually does, and every path seems to curve back in a loop. We go from there to the burned-out cabin where the previous film ended, and then into a tunnel only barely big enough to crawl through. The stage seems to gradually get smaller and smaller, which leads to an encroaching sense of claustrophobia. Some powerful force of nature has these characters in its grasp, and we can feel the fingers slowly tightening around them. There’s a looming sense of inevitable doom, without any hope of victory or escape. The only possible silver lining is that this footage may pass on some new information about the Blair Witch and the woods outside Burkittsville, so their deaths were not in vain.
THAT SAID, the creepy atmosphere is greatly injured by the fact that it’s the same shrill and annoying characters in every shot. There were seriously times when I wanted to cheer when a character finally got killed off. That isn’t even getting started on all the obnoxious jump scares they inflict on each other — I couldn’t tell you how many useless jump scares were packed into the first hour of this 88-minute movie.
But while the human characters are utterly unremarkable and practically begging to die (They went in after three college kids just like them who never came back, for God’s sake!), they’re not the main attraction here. Which brings me to the Blair Witch.
While the film was obliged to build on the established lore of the previous film, the filmmakers do this in some highly savvy ways. And I’m not just talking about Elly Kedward, Rustin Parr, or the stick figures, though the film touches on all of those in different ways. I’m talking about how the film expands the boundaries of the mythos, presenting one answer in ways that raise ten new questions. And it’s done in a way that’s genuinely compelling, which is the whole point.
In the climax (easily the strongest point of this film, as it was in the first), it’s implied that the Blair Witch is of the greatest danger to those who go out in search of her. She preys on our insatiable need for closure, which serves as a compelling thematic hook. We have this innate desire to explore the unknown and understand what’s out there, but the Blair Witch is a force of nature that cannot be tamed, and those who try to know her will be broken.
It’s a wickedly clever conceit that neatly plays into the mysterious and unseen nature of the Blair Witch. Unfortunately, it’s also the single strongest argument for why there shouldn’t be any more sequels. We can only have so many search parties go out into the woods before we lose all sympathy, and we can only explore the backstory so much before we either chafe against or outright destroy the inherently unknowable nature of the character. It’s also kind of a slap in the face to the fans who’ve spent so many years theorizing about the Blair Witch, and who will undoubtedly go through this DVD frame-by-frame looking for clues to decode. You’ll never see the Blair Witch and you’ll never know the answers, so don’t even bother.
Blair Witch carries over a lot of strengths and faults from the previous film, it was clearly made with tremendous affection for the source material, the climax is suitably terrifying, and the established mythos is built upon in intriguing ways. In summary, the filmmakers successfully made the case that a suitable Blair Witch sequel could’ve been made. But it fails to make a convincing argument as to why a Blair Witch sequel should’ve been made.
If you really do believe that we needed a Blair Witch Project sequel and sixteen years was too long a wait, go see the film. Then buy the Blu-Ray and have fun watching it backwards and forwards in all kinds of different speeds. Otherwise, you won’t be missing anything if you give this a pass.