When The Blair Witch Project released in 1999 it was something of a phenomenon. Spurred on by a new style of marketing (what we today consider viral), the film gained a lot of attention from the confusion over whether or not it was “real.” Promoted as the found footage detailing the final days of three students camping in the woods, The Blair Witch Project capitalized on its own myth-making and turned the found footage sub-genre into a staple of modern horror.
Considering I was all of 12 when The Blair Witch Project first released, I never saw the movie in theaters. I did, however, have a friend who saw it at the time and she relayed to me what happened, feeding my nagging curiosity over the movie practically everyone was talking about. With my curiosity sated, I never did make a point of actually seeing The Blair Witch Project, and it’s a movie which has since so permeated our pop culture I don’t think I really need to. (I felt more than ‘in on the joke’ while watching its recent Honest Trailer, for example.)
And while some may think not having seen the original makes me a poor choice to review this new Blair Witch movie, I’d argue being only culturally aware of that first film puts me in its target demographic. Blair Witch is a mostly a retread of The Blair Witch Project. It updates only the technology used and its characters’ connection to the Blair Witch legend while keeping most of the original film’s formula intact: a group college students enter the Black Hills forest to investigate the Blair Witch, they go missing and only the footage of their finals days is ever found.
[It should also be noted that they were able to keep production on this sequel a total secret, producing the film and even promoting it at San Diego Comic-Con under the vague title, The Woods. It’s not quite the viral marketing technique the original pioneered, but it’s certainly commendable in today’s age of scoops and spoilers, perhaps even saving the film from being savaged by internet speculation before it ever screening.]
Watching Blair Witch with fresh eyes is probably the best way to go (judging by the comments I heard from others at my screening who complained it was too similar and too faithful to the original). Basically, Blair Witch isn’t interested in messing around with what worked well the first time, so the film is presented from several point-of-view shots and the scares come more from what’s heard and not seen. The audio more than the visuals are where the film gets freaky, benefitting greatly from a theater’s Dolby, SDDS, THX, whatever sound system. There are jump scares aplenty, and how well they work comes from whether or not you find them overused. (There is a funny little self-referential joke in there about just that, which I found amusing but I can certainly understand how others might find grating.)
The cast is about as fleshed out as they need be, with the bulk of the film falling to James (James Allen McCune as the younger brother of Heather, the woman who went missing in the first film) and Lisa (Callie Hernandez as Jame’s fellow student and documentary filmmaker), and the pair do a fine job carrying the narrative. Blair Witch is by no means a comedy, but there are comedic moments which help it from getting too tedious. James’ best friend, Peter (Brandon Scott), and local Blair Witch aficionado, Lane (Wes Robinson), take care of most the film’s funny beats, while the winners for enduring the gruesome trials goes to Peter’s girlfriend, Ashley (Corbin Reid) and local girl, Talia (Valorie Curry). These two are involved in some genuinely scary moments, delivering on what should be two of the most talked about scenes in the film.
What really sets this take on the Blair Witch apart from the original is the means by which the characters can film their struggles. Mostly gone are the handheld cameras (with actual tapes!) of old, replaced with bluetooth headsets, mini HDs, and drones. Yes, there’s a drone camera in Blair Witch, though it isn’t used nearly as effectively as it could have been. But this update in tech is a godsend when it comes to characters racing through the dark woods. Those who easily experience motion sickness may still want to sit this film out, but the added clarity to these frenetic shots is welcomed.
It’s unlikely Blair Witch will have the cultural resonance of The Blair Witch Project; the film hits all the expected beats, delivering on what its premise promises. There are a handful of surprises in how everything comes together, but its ending does drag on for a bit, becoming more tiresome than terrifying. (The severely claustrophobic might disagree, however.) For fans of the found footage brand, I’d wager there are better examples – many from Blair Witch‘s writer Simon Barret and director Adam Wingard – but this entry is still a worthwhile experience had in a darkened movie theater surrounded by strangers, each reacting differently to moments both funny and scary alike.