“Would everyone stop doing that!”
The young woman who shouts this plea is in the woods at night, and she has just been badly startled by a companion who appeared out of nowhere, flashlight blazing. Her irritation is understandable, given that some variation on this precise scenario has taken place at least a half-dozen times already.
Her irritation may also be shared by moviegoers who pay money to see Blair Witch, the film of which she is a protagonist. As its title suggests, the movie is a sequel/reboot of the 1999 indie-horror sensation The Blair Witch Project. As the previous paragraph suggests, it is a lousy one.
A “found-footage” movie theoretically composed entirely of video snippets taken by three film students, The Blair Witch Project was put together for an infinitesimal $60,000 budget and went on to make almost $250 million worldwide. As such, it was a phenomenon that implicitly defied replication: Any attempt at a sequel or reboot would by definition be the extension of a famous brand—pretty much the opposite of the ingenious micro-indie that had spawned it. And indeed, the movie’s $15 million 2000 sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was a critical flop and major box-office disappointment.
Sixteen years later, Lionsgate has returned for another bite at the apple. And while Blair Witch (made for a relatively frugal $5 million) is not as complete a disaster as Book of Shadows, it is by no reasonable estimate a success.
The movie’s central problem is that apart from a few conspicuous flourishes—more on these in a moment—it is almost slavishly faithful to the original. Four friends decide to trek into the thickly forested Black Hills of Maryland in search of the legendary Blair Witch. This time around, one member of the group (James Allen McCune) is the younger brother of the young woman who disappeared in the original film; another (Callie Hernandez) is the budding documentarian; and two more (Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid) are essentially friends along for the ride. The quartet is soon joined by another pair of young locals (Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry) who claim to have discovered footage of the witch, making for an unwieldy half-dozen campers in all.
The group heads out into the woods, where—well, if you’ve seen the original, you have a pretty good idea of what happens. Daytime brings fatigue and confusion about their location; nighttime brings ominous noises, sudden frights, the appearance of stone cairns and wooden stick figures, and ultimately the disappearance of companions. As noted, the protagonists spend a great deal of time running through the woods startling one another with flashlights. And it all concludes, as we know it must, in a creepy, dilapidated house hidden in the belly of the forest. Indeed, Blair Witch follows the original’s beats so precisely that at times it seems that the film is more eager to elicit memories of its predecessor than to stand on its own at all.
Worse, on almost every occasion that the movie deviates from its source material it does so to its detriment. Whereas the three paranormal explorers of the original were just the right number, six are far too many: None of the characters come to life as individuals, and viewers are thus only loosely invested in their survival. Likewise, The Blair Witch Project devoted considerable time to buildup (the interviews with locals, the meeting with the fishermen, the sharing of ancient and frightful lore) and limited the finale at the House in the Woods to a few brief minutes. Blair Witch inverts this emphasis—and defies the horror maxim that what you don’t see is almost always scarier than what you do—by sending its protagonists into the woods almost immediately and then spending far too much time at the witch’s
gingerbread house crumbling abode.
Given the revolutionary leaps in personal tech that have taken place in the last decade and a half, Blair Witch clearly needed to update its campers’ equipment. But the movie does so promiscuously, with high-end walkie-talkies, earpiece video recorders, cameras that can be set in trees, and—most absurdly, given the density of the forest—a flying drone. One result of this video-overkill is that everyone is constantly being filmed from multiple vantage points, leading to frequent cuts that seriously undermine the entire “found-footage” conceit.
Indeed, the movie as a whole finds itself caught between styles, evoking neither the amateur authenticity of The Blair Witch Project (and successors such as Paranormal Activity) nor the crafted sheen of a typical studio project. The cast contributes to this problem as well, managing to appear neither artlessly genuine nor theatrically gifted. And despite the strong reputation he earned with the movies You’re Next and The Guest, the director Adam Wingard proves unable to lift the movie above its manifest shortcomings. There’s even an odd bit of gory, Cronenbergian body horror thrown in that seems to belong in a different movie altogether.
None of this, of course, would much matter if Blair Witch were actually scary. But it’s not. The shocks are familiar and often telegraphed. At the screening I attended, there were many more giggles than gasps, and a vague sense of disappointment and vexation seemed to hover among the audience—as if we were pleading to the screen, would everyone stop doing that?