Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Valorie Curry, Wes Robinson
Running Time: 89 minutes
Release Date: September 16th
Confession time. The year is 1999 and a trip down the road to see an independent horror film results in a sleepless night for this particular scribe. In the interest of full disclosure, it still provokes pause for bothersome thought in twilight hours. The Blair Witch Project was never meant to be the ludicrous phenomenon it would turn out to be – the budget to profit ratio remains rather astonishing and it arguably invented viral marketing while simultaneously reviving the fairly useless found footage genre – and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single more divisive feature in the past couple of decades.
One man’s treasure is another man’s trash and all that, but if The Blair Witch Project worked for you then it likely got right under your skin and made a home there. Having previously crafted knowing genre fare in the form of You’re Next (good) and The Guest (great), Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett represent an especially intriguing choice of guides for our return to Burkittsville and the nearby Black Hills. A shrewd hype campaign of its own – Blair Witch was a surprise reveal having been filmed and initially teased under the guise of The Woods – and confident declarations from both director and writer that their “first real horror film” is no mere uninspired safe retread whetted appetites nicely.
So yeah, it’s a safe enough and mostly uninspired retread. Oh, and it’s packed with irritating jump scares, too. The Blair Witch Project is a terrific piece of horror filmmaking because of its flaws. In some ways, its power is completely accidental. It was never intended for the multiplex, never concerned with satisfying the fickle whims of Joe Public, never meticulously designed by cynical committee. There’s authenticity in its ramshackle presentation, mundane conversations and wholesale lack of pageantry. Steeped in reality to the point of being uncomfortable, its tiniest details and reveals deeply unsettle, the sense of dread and paranoia constantly growing thanks entirely to the machinations of the mind. In place of no depicted bogeyman, you devise your own. And then they stumble upon that fucking house.
Blair Witch 2016 simply cannot compete with the sketchpad that is one’s own imagination when placed under duress. Wisely, it doesn’t really attempt to, and that’s understandable if ultimately disappointing. This direct sequel – the rushed, confused Book of Shadows has quite rightly been forced to stand in the corner – centres upon paramedic James Donahue (younger brother of Project’s doomed Heather) and his bid to gain closure. So we’re off to the woods again as a film student (Callie Hernandez) with considerably more modern tech (including ear-based cameras and a drone that offers nothing to the plot) and some additional personnel provide the found footage element and bigger body count.
In largely treading the same ground, Blair Witch quickly becomes a ‘When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?’ situation. Though the most compelling beats don’t belong entirely to him, Wingard at least seizes his opportunity, utilising strong sound design (he also handles soundtrack duties) and effectively mining tension in between the needless jump scares. He also does well with body horror and geography, particularly in a distressing extended claustrophobic scenario. Though not notably unlikeable, he and Barrett’s characters make little impression – shout out to James Allen McCune for going full method here as a lump of petrified wood – and exist as missed-opportunity pawns to shuffle around until it’s time for all hell to break loose.
The eventual carnage works in macabre rollercoaster fashion. Trees fall, bodies break, monsters emerge and chaos reigns. In this regard, Wingard and Barrett nail the chosen landing. Their haunted house is legitimately unnerving and though the titular phantom is glimpsed, just enough restraint is applied so as not to fully demystify. Still, there is little to nothing here that will leave an indelible mark. Heather Donahue’s now-infamous to-camera monologue 17 years ago deserves better than the toothless parodies it would arouse; watching her acknowledge and accept imminent death is as stark and unforgiving as horror gets. As a studio-polished cover version of a battered punk song, Blair Witch, however, is unlikely to cause long-term scarring.