A film review by Craig J. Koban September 30, 2016

BLAIR WITCH jj

2016, R, 90 mins.

 

Corbin Reid as Ashley  /  Wes Robinson as Lane  /  Valorie Curry as Talia  /  James Allen McCune as James  /  Callie Hernandez as Lisa  /  Brandon Scott as Peter

Directed by Adam Wingard  /  Written by Simon Barrett

I'll never forget my screening of 1999's THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. 

It was an ingenious film, especially for how it used a viral marketing campaign (unheard of for its time, but completely ubiquitous today) that went out of his fiendish way to make anticipated viewers believe that the events in the film were indeed real.  Daniel Myrick's and Eduardo Sanchez's found footage horror thriller was an underground sensation: Costing a mere $60,000 and grossing $250 million, it went on to become the event film of the summer of its release.  Its remarkably gritty and authentic cinema verite aesthetic grounded the creepy realism of its story and helped cement its cult status for portraying factual events.  THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT certainly didn't create the found footage genre, but it wholeheartedly established the creative blueprint that countless other horror films in its wake have tried to emulate.  That, and the film's usage of the then-in-its-infancy Internet to sell itself has now become an industry standard.  

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is easily one of the most influential films of the last 25 years.  No question. 

This inevitably brings me to BLAIR WITCH, which up until a few short months ago was simply known as THE WOODS, a psychological horror thriller with a suspiciously BLAIR WITCH PROJECT-ian vibe based on early teaser trailers.  Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett achieved the relatively impossible - especially in this social media hungry and savvy day - of keeping the true identity of THE WOODS under wraps up until San Diego Comic Con 2016, during which time they perpetrated one of the greatest about-face marketing coups in recent movie history.  While there, they unveiled a new trailer for THE WOODS, which now went by the title BLAIR WITCH and officially advertised itself as a direct sequel to the events to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.  

 

 

Rather predictably, the movie geek community of the world collective gasped "Holy...shit!" 

Now, as for BLAIR WITCH the film itself?  It does indeed directly reference key characters and events from the '99 film and even contains a main character that's a brother to Heather Donahue, the infamously uptight, somewhat pretentious, but doggedly ambitious and determined documentary filmmaker that went missing with her crew in the Black Hills Forrest of Maryland while trying to uncover the mysteries of the Blair Witch.  This new film takes place 15 years after the tragic and nerve rattling climax of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which left Heather presumably dead.  Her sibling in question, James (James Allen McCune), has uncovered a YouTube video of found footage that he vehemently believes contains a blink-or-you'll miss it glimpse of his sister.  He then takes it upon himself to gather a crew together to venture into the woods to look for answers. 

Does any of this sound remotely familiar? 

Once again, we see a documentary film crew packing up and journeying into the forest, led by James and his filmmaker friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) as well as their two pals Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid).  Tagging along with them are Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), a couple that posted the unearthed YouTube footage.  Much like their 1999 counterparts, the group is stocked up on film equipment and supplies, but this time utilizing advances in technology not afforded to Heather and her crew back in the day (including some nifty ear piece cameras and a smart phone powered drone camera).  Eventually, strange events begin to transpire all around James and his friends, all of which bare a startling resemblance to what happened to his older sister 15 years prior. 

There are two things that BLAIR WITCH does well: Firstly, Wingard displays some early flashes of freshness with the material by grounding it in the filmmaking tools of today, which ironically allows for this film to have a more pristine look and feel than its predecessor (this has a negative side effect, though...more on that in a bit).  He captures some uniquely compelling footage directly via his characters' usage of GoPro cameras, ultra slick surveillance security cameras, iPhones, iPads, HD cameras tied to trees, the aforementioned drones, and so forth.  Secondly, BLAIR WITCH is an unqualified triumph of sound engineering and editing.  The manner that Wingard fully evokes the nightmarish ambient noises that lurk all around the increasingly frazzled characters is arguably the most unnerving element in the film.  Every seemingly inconsequential sound that the woods emanates spells potential doom...and that's a universal fear that this film and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT intuitively understands.   

There's one big problem that plagues BLAIR WITCH throughout its first 60-plus minutes: an overwhelmingly and crushingly disappointing sensation of deja vu.  This film has been slickly and resourcefully marketed, to be sure, as one kind of film that ended up being revealed as a sequel to its antecedent.  Unfortunately, BLAIR WITCH is really a remake in sequel's clothing.  Paradoxically, Wingard and company pulled a bait and switch on us with their SDCC reveal, but upon viewing the final film there's undeniable evidence on screen that they pulled an even bigger and more indefensible kind of bait and switch.  Instead of owning up to promises of a follow-up entry in this franchise that covers new ground, all BLAIR WITCH really does for two thirds of its running time is lazily retread many of the character dynamics, conflicts, and scenes beat for beat from the first film.  This has the damming effect of sucking out any semblance of tension: since you know where the story is headed at nearly every waking moment, the film becomes more tedious than terrifying. 

If you're expecting a daring and audaciously original installment in the BLAIR WITCH cannon, then seeing this film will prove to be a highly frustrating experience.  We get the same type of characters journeying into the same woods plagued by the same supernatural entity and, hell, it even culminates in the same creepy and dilapidated haunted house that spelled doom for Heather and her friends well beforehand.  There's simply nothing profoundly fresh or invigorating on display here: all BLAIR WITCH becomes is a shinier, glossier, and more expensive carbon copy of the original.  And that's another foible with this film - it looks too good.  The '99 film looked grungy, dirty, uncoordinated, and actually felt like it was being amateurishly shot by its faux filmmakers.  That helped sell the illusion of its artificial reality.  BLAIR WITCH, by direct comparison, rarely feels real.  It feels like the product of a Hollywood studio gifted with a vastly larger budget.  That robs this film of the type of haunting verisimilitude that it thinks its achieving.  Subconsciously, I always knew that I was watching a movie trying to pass itself off as fact, a sensation that I never fully felt with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.   

Strangely, the actors here also work against this film's intended effect.  Under the direct circumstances, many of them give thanklessly decent performances that would hold up well in just about any other horror film, but here they all seem too clean cut for their own good.  The original cast of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT were relatively unseasoned actors, which helped the production considerably.  They came off as real everyday people, not movie stars trying to evoke real people, which is what we get here.  The characters presented in BLAIR WITCH are fairly one note and, more often than not, are rendered with a bit too much on-the-nose obviousness.   

I will say this, though, in staunch defense of BLAIR WITCH: The final 15-plus minutes - which all occurs inside the twisted and decaying corridors of the witch's supposed dwelling hidden deep within the woods (that appears to ignore the normal rules of time) - is stupendously effective and is consummately crafted by Wingard for maximum horrifying claustrophobia.  It's as positively harrowing as any final act that I've seen in a film in 2016.  Mournfully, BLAIR WITCH never displays much invention in its entire build up to its masterfully conceived and heart racing climax.  This film rarely appears to be re-energizing or expanding upon the mythology of one of the greatest horror films ever made.  There are some superficial additions here and there, but all in all experiencing BLAIR WITCH - like far too many films these days that are trying to cash in on nostalgia - is akin to digesting stale leftovers.  Somewhere along the line, Wingard and company have confused what a bona fide sequel truly should be and, in the process, demonstrate a simplistic affinity for mimicry and not innovation.  And that's really frightening.  

 

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