In 1999, The Blair Witch Project created a phenomenon. A pre-internet marketing campaign, devoid of known actors and perfectly realised with a fleshed-out backstory, it generated monumental hype, suggesting the events and mythos of the movie were true. The fact that Cannibal Holocaust had done the same thing, twenty years prior, was rendered immaterial by the fact The Blair Witch Project was a bona fide masterpiece, a lesson in the craft of tension, horror and low-budget filmmaking. It created a feeling of unease and genuine scares with seemingly little effort. But as seventeen years of imitators have shown us, it’s not as easy as it looks.
We return to the woods with Blair Witch, a direct sequel to the first movie. Creators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez are involved as executive producers, but the writing and directing duties fall to Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard respectively, the partnership responsible for the entertaining You’re Next and sublime thriller The Guest. On paper at least, a safe pair hands. So does Blair Witch give new life to the faltering found-footage genre? Well, to put it bluntly, absolutely not.
James (James Allen McCune) is the brother of Heather Donahue, one of the three missing campers from the original movie. When he gets a potential lead on the whereabouts of his sister, he goes to investigate with his friends Peter (Brandon Scott), Ashley (Corbin Reid), and Lisa (Callie Hernandez), the latter of which will film the investigation for a documentary project.
The first half of the movie is a pretty blatant re-hash of the original as our heroes haplessly blunder through the wilderness until they find themselves lost and terrorised by something sinister out in the dark woods. As the movie progresses, there are vague explanations and hints that the timeline is being played with. The latter half gets a little more overt, providing brief glimpses of the horrors and aimless chasing through haunted house corridors.
The Blair Witch Project worked so effectively because much of what occurred was unseen. There is little more terrifying than what an audience can conjure up in its own mind, and all The Blair Witch Project did was invite us to do that. From then on it was an exercise in ramping up the tension and unease. And it is here that Blair Witch disappoints. There is no tension. There is no feeling of unease. Instead, it falls victim to the traps laid by the found-footage genre itself – initial boredom, and shaky-cam incomprehension.
When the “frights” do come, it’s via cheap, loud noises or static-y camera malfunction. There is not one genuinely earned scare in Blair Witch’s entire duration. The actors are competent and there is one effectively claustrophobic sequence in a tunnel, but even at a brisk 89 minutes, the movie begins to feel too long. There is some effort to expand the Blair Witch mythology, but it’s too lightweight, tactless and undercooked.
The ambiguity of the original film allowed it to be equally plausible that the documentary makers were being terrorised by a person or persons, as much as a paranormal force. No lines were ever definitively drawn. Blair Witch, however, sets its stall out conclusively on one side and rather than enhancing its mystique, it only serves to make events less interesting once a light is shone on the proceedings.
The modern-day setting gives the search party some fun toys to play with, like ear cameras, GPS and a remote controlled drone; the drone serving as a rather accurate metaphor for the plot itself: a nice idea, but it doesn’t actually go anywhere and they lose it after about fifteen minutes.
You come out of Blair Witch feeling like everyone involved can do a lot better. Ultimately, there is not a lot to recommend here, unless you have some schadenfreude against Wingard and Barrett and want to see them scraping the barrel after their mighty achievement with The Guest. For the rest of us, Blair Witch renders itself rather pointless when the original still has so much more to offer.
THE REEL SCORE: 3/10