Who knew that after 17 years, The Blair Witch Project would still maintain a legacy that spearheaded a new wave of found footage horror films, for better or for worse? Even though 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust and 1998’s The Last Broadcast did the found footage deal first, The Blair Witch Project was the first film to use the internet in a powerful way to market itself to a broad audience. With multiple mockumentaries and advertising on billboards, websites, and television networks, The Blair Witch Project turned a $60,000 project into a $248.6 million blockbuster in the summer of 1999. It also proved what a hot commodity low-budget filmmaking is, causing studios to cost their losses and produce low budget films for a huge profit. Many believe this started the downfall for the horror genre, but no one can deny how powerful The Blair Witch Project was to audiences and to critics alike.
Of course with any successful film, a sequel was quickly made in 2000. It was so widely-panned by audiences and critics, that a third film was dropped. A video game series was created soon after, but it was considered so unplayable, the video game series bombed. Everyone considered the Blair Witch franchise to be dead in the water.
…That is until earlier this year at San Diego Comic-Con, when director Adam Wingard (The Guest, You’re Next) revealed that his film The Woods was really a Blair Witch sequel in secret. Audiences at the event praised the film, with glowing reviews popping up on multiple websites who were able to catch the film by surprise. The buzz by this new Blair Witch film led to a wide release, hoping to resurrect the franchise back from the dead. Now that Blair Witch has been released to audiences hoping for the simplicity and creep factor of the original, all I can say is – why did they even bother?
Almost two decades after his sister Heather has gone missing after investigating the Blair Witch legend in Burkittsville, Maryland, James (James Allen McCune) is the subject of a documentary for his college friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez). Apparently after watching some recent footage from 2014, James believes Heather is still alive and wants to go to Burkittsville to find her. Lisa, best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) reluctantly agree to go with James to document Heather’s search. Along with two locals who found the 2014 tapes (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), the six of them head into the same woods that plagued the characters of the first film. After a few nights there, supernatural occurrences make the group very aware that maybe the Blair Witch isn’t just a myth after all.
I’m just going to come out and say it: I was never a fan of The Blair Witch Project until recently. I went to an early screening prior to the film’s wide release, and wondered why I was the only one in the audience who left without feeling scared or unnerved by this movie. I’m one of the few who enjoyed 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 right from the get go, preferring it over the original film. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I came to truly appreciate the 1999 original, respecting how simple and honest it was in terms of acting, direction, and its narrative. It helps that most found footage films that have been released since have been terrible, and nothing but business decisions rather than love for telling a good story. The Blair Witch Project changed a genre and I can finally see why people embraced it so heavily at the time. It has a heart and a soul.
I wish I can say the same for the 2016 sequel. Reboot? Re-quel? With all the hype this new Adam Wingard film has received, it was a total let down and mis-fire for the director. Blair Witch is not the worst found footage film ever made, but it’s definitely one of the most pointless. After 16 years of not having a Blair Witch movie, I consider that a massive disappointment.
Let’s get the positives out of the way. Blair Witch has some really good actors struggling with a tired narrative. I found all the actors likable in some way, making me care for them while they’re dealing with some supernatural stuff. James Allen McCune brings an earnestness and naivety to his role, making us understand why he would want to seek out his missing sister – even though we know it’s a dumb move and will end up creating more of a problem. Callie Hernandez is pretty great as Lisa, bringing a warmness and intelligence to the film. Her and McCune have an easy chemistry that I wish was explored a bit more. Brandon Scott brought the laughs as Peter, providing us with commentary for the audience about this whole thing. His interactions with everyone around him was very believable. Corbin Reid, Valorie Curry, and especially Wes Robinson provide tense moments that clash with the other characters. I think the best part of Blair Witch is the cast. I just wish they were in a better film.
I also thought some of the cinematography by Robby Baumgartner was quite nice. The woods look pretty similar to the ones from the original film, with some nice overhead shots via a drone, and good framing and composition during important scenes. It’s all digital footage, but it’s nice looking footage.
And at least the final 20 minutes tries to be tense and creepy. I wasn’t affected by any of it, but I can understand why others would be. If you remember the ending of The Blair Witch Project, it’s pretty much the same but expanded. You see more of the shack. You see glimpses of a woman roaming around in there. You learn why one of the characters in the original was standing in the corner. Compared to the rest of the film, the final moments actually tries to expand on some things and scare audiences. It’s not perfect storytelling, but I appreciated that it tried to twist around what the original film had accomplished to meet its own goals.
The rest of the film, however, just left me feeling mostly nothing. Lionsgate will call this a sequel, but it’s definitely a reboot. Besides the James-Heather angle, everything else is pretty much a carbon copy of the 1999 film. The only differences are that we have more characters, the technology has been advanced (drones!), and our characters are aware of what happened in the original film. Characters go into the woods to document the search for Heather, as well as the legend of the Blair Witch. The characters hear noises. The characters see the memorable Blair Witch stick figures all over the woods. The characters get lost in the woods and start in fighting. They eventually find the shack and enter it to bad results. Every beat might not be the same, but Blair Witch is just a modern retelling of the original film. Except, the original film had a simple narrative with memorable dialogue and character interactions that have stood the test of time. Blair Witch offers no surprises, no twists in the story – it’s very similar to the first film. And after 17 years, audiences deserve more than that. If you’re not going to expand on the original story, what’s the point?
I also thought Adam Wingard’s direction wasn’t all that good. I’ve been a fan of the man for many years now, even when others haven’t been all impressed by The Guest, You’re Next, and A Horrible Way to Die. But this is his worst film by far. It’s all shaky cam for the most part, to the point where I got a headache. People in my theater actually ran out, covering their mouths with their hand as if they needed to vomit. The last half of the film is just overwhelming with shaky cam. The editing is a bit off at times, and sometimes you wonder what you’re looking at – which takes away from some of the mood’s effectiveness. I also found it quite silly that every single character needed cameras to document their search, making me appreciate the one camera direction of the original film. Switching between perspectives between characters makes me question why this was even found footage to begin with. It plays out like a traditional narrative, only using the benefits of the found footage theory when it needed it. The worst thing about Wingard’s direction is that his voice is completely lost. Instead of Blair Witch feeling like a Wingard movie that happens to be a Blair Witch sequel, Blair Witch is a sequel that just happens to be directed by Wingard. Anyone could have directed this and I would have never known it was Adam Wingard if I wasn’t told that it was. It’s a shame because Wingard has an eye when it comes to telling stories. Blair Witch just feels like he used the same script from the original and just edited it for 2016. It’s a shame.