By Kevin Redding
In the summer of 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” was unleashed on audiences everywhere and shook things up in a huge way. The low-budget film’s remarkable authenticity — from the talent of its anonymous actors to the way it was shot on hand-held cameras to the conceivability of the events — and genius viral marketing in the early days of the internet convinced millions of moviegoers that the madness they were seeing unfold on screen was real and a direct result of piecing together “found footage” from a trek in the woods gone horribly awry.
This subgenre, which we’ve since been beaten over the head with to the point of desensitization, was spectacularly fresh at the time and unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. It worked like gangbusters and the film’s incredible box office success — raking in about $248.6 million off a $60,000 budget — influenced the next crop of indie filmmakers and certainly spawned its fair share of countless imitators that continue to this day, none of which have yet to rise to its level.
Whether it scared you or not, “The Blair Witch Project” remains a masterfully crafted and wholly unique piece of horror that can never be replicated.
This past weekend, the film’s direct sequel “Blair Witch” is just further proof of that. Resurrecting such a hot property like this was inevitable in the modern age of nostalgia-based reboots, but the studio did something promising by handing the keys to the cabin to some of the most interesting young horror filmmakers working today: director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, the team behind subversive and exciting films like “You’re Next” and “The Guest.”
Unfortunately, their well-established chops aren’t reflected in the film. With Wingard and Barrett at the helm, it’s just even more baffling that the end result is so uninteresting, by-the-book and overall kind of obnoxious in that modern, big-budget “cash grab horror movie” kind of way.
Gone is all the subtlety, atmosphere, tension and dread of the original; in its place are loud and unearned jump scares every couple of minutes, bland and laughably unrealistic characters we don’t care about, and a plot that doesn’t do anything to really enhance the lore and mythos of the witch, leaving me to wonder what the point of this sequel was at all.
It’s difficult to even consider this a sequel as much as an outright remake, because although “Blair Witch” equips its new generation of soon-to-be faces on “Missing” fliers with updated gadgets like Bluetooth earpiece cameras, drone cams and GPS for new inventive angles for the subgenre, it’s basically a beat-for-beat copy of that first one, but without the things that made it really effective.
Here, we follow James (James McCune) in his determination to go and find his long-lost sister, Heather from the original, who disappeared in that dreadful Black Hills Forest 15 years ago (this one takes place in 2014).
A recent video taken in that stretch of woods was uploaded to YouTube, and blurry footage of a woman convinces him that it could be her and she could still be out there. Even though in the universe of this movie the footage of the original film exists and has been seen and is well known, James decides to gather up a group of friends and go ahead and suffer exactly as his own sister and her two pals did.
One of the friends, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), is a filmmaker set on documenting the experience. Because the leads in the original were likable and realistic human beings, it’s extremely sad to watch their journey as we know full well that they’re not going to make it out alive. Here, there’s no emotional attachment to anyone on screen and so it’s tough to root for anyone but the witch herself.
With the inclusion of two weird locals, the pack of Abercrombie models we’re supposed to believe are real everyday people discover that there’s more to the woods than mere folklore and gossip. Things unravel pretty quickly like in the first film: stick figures are found outside of their tents, people disappear, they walk for hours only to wind up at the same spot. There are also bizarre things thrown in that don’t really go anywhere. It definitely feels like Wingard and Barrett were boredly waiting the whole movie just to get to the last 15 to 20 minutes where they could finally let loose and show off a bit. They take everything up a few hundred notches and for the first time, the movie feels a little interesting and fun. They basically take us through a virtual reality haunted house ride that’s pretty intense and stressful, even though it winds up just being a bigger and louder version of what we’ve seen before — which pretty much sums up the entire film.
In a recent Facebook post, actress Heather Donahue —whose tearful face adorns the iconic image of “The Blair Witch Project” — declared that “scare for scare, the new ‘Blair Witch’ is better than the original” and I couldn’t disagree more.
There’s nothing in the original that breaks the illusion that we’re watching real people going through a real, horrifying situation. Whereas in this one, there’s nothing that feels genuine; instead we’re very aware that we’re watching bad actors pretending to be scared in a very scripted movie. The first one sends chills down your spine with just the sound of a twig snapping and a distant voice in the dark and changed movies forever. This one shoves everything in your face, blares in your ears and is afraid to try anything that hasn’t been done before. It simply doesn’t hold a candle to what a couple indie filmmakers did in 1999 with just a couple cameras and a couple actors in the woods.
“Blair Witch,” now playing in local theaters, is rated R for language, terror and several disturbing images.