“Blair Witch” Is Lost In The Woods

It might be hard to believe, but back in the dark days of 1999 when people huddled around tube-based televisions in fear of packs of marauding boy bands, The Blair Witch Project was both relatively novel and genuinely frightening. It wasn’t the first mockumentary horror film, but it did arguably create the found-footage genre as we know it today, laying down the foundational tropes that have been endlessly rehashed and reheated in the years since. It’s a shame, then, that the first proper sequel to the Mother of Shakycam Monsters adamantly refuses to break any new ground of its own and is content to coast on the legacy of its ancestor.

Completely ignoring the events of Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (like everybody else does), this new-yet-hauntingly familiar project follows James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of Heather from the first film. A blurry image on a YouTube video allegedly taken in the woods where Heather was last seen convinces James that she’s still alive, and he embarks on an expedition to find her. He’s accompanied by a few generic friends who barely deserve names, a couple of local-resident tour guides, and (because it's mandatory) a budding documentary filmmaker. They go in the woods, creepy and/or scary things happen, people scream, people run, and all of it is on footage that was later recovered.

Also (spoiler alert) there is a witch. Although her name is not Blair.

Her name isn't Blair, either. Not that it matters.

It’s probably not fair to judge Blair Witch against its iconic forbearer, but director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett practically beg the audience to do so. The incoherent, logic-adverse script follows the same beats, repeats many of the same lines, and contains more than one shout-out to the original Project that makes absolutely zero sense in the context of the new film. In fact, the film overall feels like a rejected episode from a later entry in the V/H/S anthology series that was padded out to feature length and had the Blair Witch slapped onto it at the last second for name recognition.

What made the original so effective was its no-budget aesthetic, improvised dialogue, you-are-there pretext, and the fact that the Witch was never actually seen. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that the Witch was more of a psychosomatic bogeyman, a presence that took shape only because of a desperate effort for the characters to rationalize their predicament. The truly terrifying part of the original was seeing how easily and quickly the characters broke down, turned on each other, and gave in to blind panic and psychosis.

Must…reach…cultural relevancy…

The new film, in contrast, has a seven-figure budget, a script, a special effects crew, and a Witch straight out of found-footage central casting; somewhere, there’s a Paranormal Activity knock-off missing its villain because she’s moonlighting as the Blair Witch. Instead of the cast being slowly driven crazy by the mere suggestion of a threat, they’re actively menaced by a creature that’s frustratingly vague, especially considering the massive amount of folklore created around it. There are no consistent rules around what’s happening or about what the Witch is and does. Instead of an urban legend, she’s a time-and-space-warping uber-demon that loses her menace when it’s clear that she’s little more than a diabolus ex machina.

She also has remarkably horrible taste in victims to top it all off. There's barely a single gifted actor in the small cast (although James Allen McCune is at least amusingly dedicated to his role), and nobody possesses more than a handful of character traits. Once the supernatural tomfoolery begins in earnest, that’s just as well, because everybody responds with the same kind of generic horror-film fear and irrationality. Unlike Wingard and Barrett’s piercingly effectively and wickedly humorous home-invasion horror film You’re Next, there isn’t a single genre-savvy character in the bunch, and they walk so blindly into so many horror-movie pitfalls that it’s almost satisfying to watch them get offed one by one because they’re clearly too stupid to live.

Cute but stupid.

The only inventive thing in the entire film is how the found footage itself is handled. Aside from one character who carries an old-school, DV tape-equipped camera (which actually becomes a plot point during the climax), all the camera equipment is of-the-moment. Each character has an ear-mounted personal camera that also has a GPS tracker, each of which apparently has unlimited batteries and recording space. There’s also a drone-mounted camera that provides a few nice aerial shots of the woods but otherwise seems superfluous and unnecessary. While those conceits do solve the age-old “put the camera down and run, you stupid git” problem, it also seems far too slick and convenient. Found-footage films only work well when they seem like genuine found footage, and the ear-cameras make the film feel less like a documentation of real events than a poorly-executed, first-person survival horror game.

There are a handful of moments early in the film that hint at the same kind of pitch-black comedy and metatextualness that made You’re Next work so well, and there are a few genuine scares, but those are quickly forgotten as the film barrels toward its nonsensical yet absurdly logical conclusion. While it's clear that the filmmakers belive in their project, there's almost nothing here that horror fans or found-footage enthusiasts haven’t seen before, and the more Wingard and Barrett try to add narrative twists out of left field, the more desperate and grasping the film becomes. The most horrifying aspects of this new Blair Witch come only in the realization that 17 years after the original set the standard, there may be absolutely nothing new that can be done with the genre. Maybe it’s time to put the camera down for good.

FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C-

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