Following a promotional push under its working title The Woods and a clever marketing reveal at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, the next instalment in the Blair Witch saga is here. Hailed as being a ‘game changer’ and directed by a ‘saviour’ of the horror genre, it is far from being either of those things. In fact, if you dare to turn around and move out of the corner what we actually have is a very cynical remake dressed up as a sequel… Beware major spoilers ahead!
In narrative, it is a sequel. Blair Witch follows James (James Allen McCune), brother of Heather from the original film as he discovers a video online which he believes proves his sister is still alive somewhere in the Black Hills Forest. Some generic exposition scenes at the start introduce us to his friends, one of whom is a filmmaker, Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and much of the initial scenes are seen from her perspective as she introduces us to a film she is making about James’ desire to discover his sister’s fate. Add a mildly concerned friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) and the group set off to meet the guy who posted the video. They find a couple of Burkittsville locals, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valories Currie) who posted the video in the hope of convincing people that the Blair Witch is real. After some initial resistance the group relent and let the couple follow them into the woods and what follows… well you watched it all 17 years ago.
In execution, it is a remake. The film follows exactly the same beats as the original film but with new technology, so instead of a simple camcorder the group now go armed with GPS, mobile apps and drone-cam. Along with the louder bumps in the night and rock piles, we are treated to flying tents, some large ‘thing’ bulldozing trees and a scene involving a foot, which is basically a homage to the tongue scene in the original. One by one the group are picked off by whatever is in the woods, although we don’t really care because none of them are given any real character development. Then, as in the original, time starts shifting and this inevitably leads those remaining to a derelict house in the woods.
In recent years, director Adam Wingard has been heralded as part of a new generation bringing a renewed vigour to the horror genre, however I found You’re Next incredibly over-rated and his segments in the VHS and ABCs of Death anthologies severely lacking. On the other hand, The Guest was an excellent throw-back to 80’s action thrillers and so going into Blair Witch my expectations were somewhere between fair to middling. On leaving the cinema however, those niggling doubts were reinforced.
I will concede the marketing campaign has been effective (the Comic Con reveal, the poster of trees moving together to reveal the iconic stick figure, the secrecy of the film’s production in today’s climate). Whilst not as terrifying as the original’s conceit of authenticity, it certainly did pique my interest up to, and including The Woods sudden removal from this year’s Frightfest line-up.
However, the film’s major problem is that the hand-held footage genre has been done to death over the years. Whilst new video technology is introduced, it inevitably takes away that element of being lost in the woods, alone and with no hope of rescue – which the original so effectively mined. More recent films have also taken the well-worn concept and used it more effectively (The Borderlands, Troll Hunter). Blair Witch has a couple of jump scares but following the template of the first film so closely hinders it as viewers already know where the story is heading. Therefore, when the final scene arrives not only is it terribly familiar but it also manages to kill any tension by shamelessly plagiarising the superior Rec (2007) in both location and monster reveal. Yes folks, Wingard reveals the Blair Witch and in doing so ruins what was so successful about the legend in the first place.
I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project and 17 years ago I bought into its mythology and was terrified and motion sick in equal measure. I can’t remember the sequel, forgotten in time but maybe worth re-evaluating after seeing this. Wingard’s Blair Witch is too happy to pander to a teenage audience raised on creative boredom, it brings nothing new to the table and fails to create any real tension or frights. Sadly, it will probably do very well financially but creatively it is a missed opportunity.