When The Blair Witch Project stormed theaters in 1999 it was unlike anything we had ever seen. We can lament the overuse of shaky cam and "found footage" in the years since but at the time it was completely new and immersive, convincing whole swaths of people that there really were a group of kids who had been disappeared by the fabled Blair Witch in the woods of Burkittsville, MD. The film wasn't obviously set up to be a franchise and you need no further proof than its ridiculous, studio-approved and totally disconnected sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which was a failure on every level.
Now sixteen years later we have Blair Witch, a true sequel conjured up from the minds of Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, indie superstars known for their intense takes on genre such as You're Next and The Guest. But the ingenuity they have shown in their more personal efforts isn't found here, and we can't even say it extends to their marketing strategy which had everyone raving at Comic-Con this summer. The film had been promoted as The Forest, a seemingly generic horror about kids lost...well, in the forest. Its true nature was revealed to great fanfare, despite having been beat out by 10 Cloverfield Lane which pulled off the same trick much earlier. Despite the title change and connection to The Blair Witch Project this is still that same generic horror movie with little new to offer.
The original 'Blair Witch' was legitimately tense and nerve-racking, with three extremely normal-looking youngsters basically filming their own demise in real time. Back then they only had a single handheld camera with which to do it, and somehow that made the experience all the more fraying. Now there are multiple cameras shooting from different angles, with footage spliced together so we get conveniently-timed, and very distracting, scene edits. Oh, and there's a drone. Yeah, these kids brought a drone. Where it connects to the first movie is in the character of James (James Allen McCune), the brother of long-lost Heather MacDonald. He believes his sibling is still out there in those haunted woods somewhere, and when he finds a Youtube video suggesting it's possible, he convinces his documentarian girlfriend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) to join him in on a journey to find her. Also along for the ride is James's best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his gal Ashley (Corbin Reid), plus local Blair Witch enthusiasts Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry).
Their trip begins with each character arming up with their array of gadgets, fancy cameras, a GPS, and hand radios to maintain constant communication. Did I mention they brought a drone? While this time is meant to be where we discover who these people are and perhaps become emotionally attached to them, the whole thing is oddly impersonal. You kind of miss the single camera the first crew had; they seemed so naked and defenseless out there alone in those woods. These people have all of Radio Shack strapped to their backs.
And for all of the fancy camera angles it doesn't amount to much that is fresh visually. When spooky stuff starts happening, and it does fairly quickly, we're still seeing the camera lens shoved practically up their noses so we can see every ounce of their fear. When they run blindly through the forest it's still likely to give you a case of vertigo. The main difference from a technical standpoint is that we get more aerial views showing the sprawling locale from which they are trying to escape. Good thing they brought that drone. The scares are familiar, as well; those creepy stick figures from the first movie are back, although the thunder is stolen from them shortly thereafter. Those mysterious rock cairns return, as well, signaling the arrival of something unexplainable yet deadly. A novel idea suggesting time and space are somehow fractured within those woods is teased but never explored in a satisfying way, perhaps saving it for future movies? They should have done it now.
I would say The Blair Witch Project was less scary than it was stressful. Tension was built up expertly among the three victims, who began to take their frustrations out on one another, making things infinitely worse. Here there is none of that internal conflict and we find ourselves not really caring what happens to these people. Wingard tries to fill the gaps with an assortment of booming jump scares, and a couple of gross-out moments (you'll never look at feet the same way again) but there's nothing that separates this from your standard horror movie. Only in the final act do we see some of Wingard's expertise come into play as he sends our senses hurtling through the cursed, terror-filled cabin, only to drop us into a pit so claustrophobic it will start playing tricks on your mind. There's no doubt of Wingard's talents behind the camera when left completely to his own devices, but he doesn't show it in Blair Witch. It's too conventional to serve as a satisfying sequel to one of the genre's most enduring and inventive horrors.
Rating: 2 out of 5