Director Adam Wingard
15 | 1h 29min | Horror, Thriller | 15 September 2016 (UK)
The original Blair Witch Project, from directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, did not singlehandedly create the found footage genre when it hit cinemas in 1999. But the absurdly high box office take and massive cultural impact – in part due to canny dialup-era internet marketing that implied the film was based on a true story, or maybe WAS the true story- ensured that this type of filmmaking approach has been intimately associated with horror material ever since. Since then, a certain familiarity, even fatigue, has set in, so much so that the found footage sub-genre itself is regularly parodied or reworked in some meta fashion. Only this year writer/director Steven DeGennaro saw his Found Footage 3D meta-horror flick garner positive reviews. No Blair Witch follow-up can count on the novelty factor again.
The Guest and You’re Next director Adam Wingard manages, at least half of the time, to just about overcome these unavoidable obstacles, with this direct sequel to the 1999 film (the much-maligned previous sequel – Book of Shadows – appears to have been banished to the netherworld). Blair Witch, in an act of marketing that pales in comparison to the campaign that drove the 1999 film, was originally sold to the public as a generic horror flick known as ‘The Woods’, before the curtain was pulled back for previews. Yet despite the film being initially sold to us as something it wasn’t, in fact, Blair Witch conforms entirely the found footage horror template, sticking surprisingly slavishly to the original Blair Witch’s narrative arc as if the filmmakers’ were afraid to alter it. It is an enhanced retread rather than a full-on reinvention, enlarging the cast numbers, adding in some new technological gizmos to offer us different camera perspectives, but for all that, 90% of the time Wingard’s film is at its scariest when it is using the same basic toolkit as the original. Still, the audience the Smoke Screen watched the film with were laughing and nodding in approval at the call backs to the first film far more times than they were yelping in fright (along with shouting in despair at dumb character actions).
You know how it is going to go as soon as this sequel begins. We join a group of camera-happy college students in the present day, as they venture into those Black Hills Forest in Maryland to uncover the mysteries surrounding the disappearance of the original Blair Witch investigative group. Beyond the destination being the same, a key link to the original film is that expedition leader James is the much-younger brother of Heather, the group leader and cameraperson who was one of the vanished. Along for the ride are buddies Ashley, Peter and Lisa; none of whom really give off much flavour other than ‘soon to be dead’, though at least they aren’t particularly irritating. James, having spent years wondering what happened to his sister and her friends (dialogue indicates they were never found) has been drawn into this expedition by some footage he has spotted on Youtube that appears to be taken from his sister’s ancient DV camera. Meeting up with the grungy and not entirely confidence-inspiring duo Lane and Talia, who posted the footage, the two groups form an uneasy alliance to explore the woods and retrace Heather’s steps. Spoiler: it turns out there is a witch in the woods, and as the endless night wears on, the group are menaced in greater and greater levels of intensity.
The descent of the group into unease, nervousness, and then outright run-like-crazy batshit terror proceeds much as you’d expect, with a few twists and feints here and there (such as certain characters knowingly misleading the others-and us) and some very dumb character actions elsewhere, plus some very familiar iconography and phenomena. Wingard gets quite a lot of scares from his use of sound: everyone is miked, so even a character hitting someone on the shoulder produces a jarring squark on the soundtrack. Cuts in the footage occur with a louder-than-normal ‘pop’ that can make you jump. There is still some mileage in the unsettling nature of seeing how the tiny flashlights the group carry can barely penetrate a forest as thick as this, combined with the limited perspective shaky, hand-held cameras offer us, even if the advanced tech the group is using means the image quality is far better then that of the 1999 film (which, along with the unexplained splicing together of multiple camera’s footage, actually works against the conceit that this is found footage).
Despite all the extra gear this expedition has – including a flying camera drone and remote cameras that can be mounted on trees, which the witch seems able to just shut off at will anyway – it’s only really in the last act where Wingard uses the specific features of a digital camera to create a genuinely frightening and claustrophobic sequence that plays on our inherent fears of something coming at us from behind, in a situation where we can’t turn to face it. Wingard doesn’t offer more explanatory detail than the original film, but he does show you a lot more supernatural stuff to varying degrees of effectiveness, and the soundtrack is way more intricate and very imposing at times. Sometimes it is just too heavy though: at certain points the witch sounds like she must be as large as the Stay Puft Marshmallow man, crashing about in the background. Much else of the time though, you’ll probably enjoy Blair Witch more as a comfortable nostalgia trip than a bewitching experience.