What scares you? The question will differ between those asked as surely as a seemingly forgotten franchise will be rebooted these days. In this case, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project has been placed in the Micmac burial ground of Hollywood. Unless you were alive when the original dropped, replete with faux documentary and a first-of-its-kind viral marketing campaign, it is very difficult to describe how seismic its impact on popular culture was lo these seventeen years ago. And in the interest of compensating bias, I loved the original. Opening night, shuffling into a theater with friends (one of whom had to leave in the middle due to motion sickness), the film began and there was a real sense that you were part of an event, something special. As history has shown, it divided the viewers and the horror community who debated whether the film was a masturbatory exercise in student filmmaking or one of the great horror films of the modern era. For those of you who find the debates of It Follows or The Witch surprising, rest assured that this conversation has been ongoing since film began. Horror is a subjective mode, a preference for those terrors that appeal uniquely to us. Seeing The Blair Witch Project was like having someone open the door to my id and remind me in graphic, thrilling fashion that themes of isolation, of being lost, of being far past control of one’s surroundings, these things frighten me.
And now, nearly two decades later, the story continues under the guidance of veteran horror creators Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) and Simon Barrett (Dead Birds, You’re Next). Interestingly, the film was originally announced under the title The Woods, an attempt to throw horror fans off the scent that this was, in fact, a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. I dig that. It felt genuine and sly, and hearkens back to the original’s campaign in a clever way. Given the duo’s tendency toward subversion of expected tropes, Blair Witch was poised to be that reboot/remake/reimagining that could potentially outshine its source material. The way The Guest turns a creepy stranger film into something bombastic and surprising, or how You’re Next subverts the notion of the ‘final girl…’ These are, at least, suggestions of the anarchic and delirious manner in which Wingard and Barrett have tackled seemingly familiar ground. With Blair Witch, the pair find themselves in unusually well-worn, comfortable territory.
The story is simple. James (James McCune) agrees to be the subject of a student documentary lensed by his might-be love interest, Lisa (Callie Hernandez). Along for the ride is James’s best pal, Peter (Brandon Scott), and Peter’s gal-pal, Ashley (Corbin Reid). The twist here is that James is the much younger brother of Heather, who went missing back in ’99 and whose disappearance was well-documented by the recovered tapes that make up the original film. Lisa intends to chart James’s journey into the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland where a recent tape has been discovered. The finder of the tape, Lane (Wes Robinson), agrees to point James and friends to the location where the tape was recovered, but only if he and his pixie-ish girlfriend, Talia (Valorie Curry), are allowed to tag along.
I will detail no more of the plot for those who wish to see the film, and I will candidly tell you that you should see this. With caveats.
One of the most striking things about Blair Witch in the context of the original is how much of a movie this feels like. We have our cast of characters assembled in order to fall prey to the supernatural forces at work in the film one by one. The dialogue is snappier, even funny at times, and the rapid developments in camera technology give Blair Witch a more cinematic palette than the grainy black-and-white used by Heather, Josh and Mike. With these upgrades comes a less intimate-feeling experience. While the original characters may be less likable than the cast of this update, they also felt more authentic. The voyeuristic way in which we watched the characters turn on one another, confess sins to one another, sabotage one another, only to meet some unknown and presumably terrible fate… well, it felt complete and horrifying.
In this film, new layers are added to the Blair Witch mythos, some of which are incredibly intriguing. Just as I thought the film would take a turn into the more surreal and less static approach to horror, it would quickly return to a path that felt entirely routine. It was this teasing frustration that most characterized my viewing of the film, except for the parts where I was white-knuckling the armrests. What makes Blair Witch so agonizing is how close it comes to greatness. Despite a litany of jump scares (and there are a LOT), there are some exciting idea forwarded in the story that take the supernatural goings-on in fresh directions, and the final fifteen minutes are tense and compelling, if derivative. Wingard and Barrett understand that less is more in the world of the Blair Witch, and keep the terror largely off-screen, and what you do see is half-glimpsed and disturbing.
Ultimately, this is a funhouse ride of a movie. It’s visually interesting, with lots of cuts and sound cues and dimly-lit terrors to keep your mind off the fact that the car you’re in is on tracks, never to deviate too far from the course these movies must run, with occasionally neck-spasming jerks to correct course when it comes too close to something unexpected or unplanned. It’s a fun time with some genuine scares, but there are glimpses that suggest it could have been, should have been, so much more.