"Do you believe in the stories about the Blair Witch?"
The world was a very different place way back in 1999, and some of that is epitomised by the fact that ‘The Blair Witch Project’ was as hugely successful as it was. The phenomenon arrives at a unique time for the horror genre, one where in a world at the forefront of the media saturation, reality TV and viral marketing were more than ready to get behind a somewhat staged performance that appeared real. One wonders if it is even possible for another instalment of the franchise, in this day and age to replicate that success.
James Donahue (James Allen McCune) and a group of fellow college students along with their local guides venture into the Black Hills Forrest in Maryland in order to try and solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of James’ sister Hanah, but what they find is far from what they expected.
In all honesty the most enduring legacy of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (aside from creating the found footage genre which has only spawned thousands of hours of lazy, uninventive and poorly realised “horror” films) may be its advertising campaign. It went to great lengths to propel the idea that the events of the film were factual. When it premiered at Sundance audiences were given flyers asking if they had seen any of the “missing” students. As it toured through college campus’ none of the cast members would ever be present, just a representative of the studio to say “Here’s this film we pieced together, what do you think?” The movie’s webpage contained fake police reports and witness interviews sparking heated debates on whether it was real across the internet, they studio even distributed a few bootleg copies of the film before it hit theatres to suggest that maybe these kids really were lost, and this underground documentary was now being paraded for the sake of profit.
But enough about that, what of this new version by Adam Wingard? In all honestly to call it “new” is doing it some favours. Part of me wonders if some studio head was upset that advances in amateur camera devices had made the original ‘Blair Witch Project’ seem dated and set out to revamp it with drones, camera phones and better quality cameras. All in all ‘Blair Witch’ is almost an exact rehash of the first instalment, cutting out certain elements like the interviews which lessen the sense of realism that made the original memorable, while adding a few GoPro shots to make it feel more modern.
It is legitimately surprising at the lack of innovation within ‘Blair Witch’, especially from a director like Wingard who has established himself as a genre twisting, inventive mind in the horror genre. His skills behind the camera are on display here, at least on a visual standpoint, but they are rarely used to convey or display anything original.
Of course this is hardly the first time a sequel has repeated similar beats of its predecessors, from ‘The Force Awakens’ to ‘Creed’, from ‘The Last Crusade’ to ‘Toy Story 3’. However what separates those movies from a sequel like ‘Blair Witch’ is how it refuses to expand upon any of the ideas brought up in the original, nor does it serve to bring any new concepts of characterisations to the table. While James is given a decent motivation the characters soon devolve into interchangeable blank slates whom I have little interest or investment in.
If anything ‘Blair Witch’ feels like a step backwards from a filmmaking perspective. The camerawork may be technically superior to the old movie but it reduces the authenticity of the film and lessens the fright factor. Not only that but with an abundance of jump scares and fake outs that only serve to further reduce the tension and atmospheric nature of the film. It becomes infuriatingly repetitive and with shot after shot of people just walking through the woods, almost following a formulaic sensibility of when to insert a character jumping in front of the camera, or a noise in the distance to create a false sense of tension to ensure the audience doesn’t fall asleep.
There are moments that work, scenes in which the dense woods is made to feel claustrophobic and the ambiguous nature of what these characters are looking for hangs over them with an unnatural feeling of dread. But while the found footage genre isn’t exactly renowned for its subtlety, the sound design for ‘Blair Witch’ is shockingly atrocious. It seeks to numb the audience into a state of fear by throwing one booming noise after another, almost trying to obliterate your senses with its loudness.
Not only does ‘Blair Witch’ become a rehash of the original, but it falls victims to the tropes and clichés of a dozen terrible horror films since 1999, from the jump scares to the all-consuming noise.