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Review: Blair Witch (2016)

Blair Witch (2016)

Directed by: Adam Wingard

Premise: A sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. A group of young people enter the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland following new information about the filmmakers who disappeared there twenty years earlier.

What Works: Blair Witch is true to its predecessor and to the Blair Witch brand and it provides a satisfyingly scary experience. One of the strengths of the original picture was that it presented a group of characters who felt real; their passion and panic didn’t come across melodramatic or contrived for the camera. That is largely true of the cast in 2016’s Blair Witch. The film is led by James Allen McCune as the brother of one of the vanished documentarians and he is joined by his friends played by Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid as well as an ambitious film student played by Callie Hernandez. The outsiders connect with a pair of locals played by Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry and the six of them head into the woods. The film has a lot of smart and subtle moments between these characters that make them distinct and believable. There’s more to these people than is revealed on the surface and the acting is naturalistic in a way that gives the movie an authentic found footage feel. The new Blair Witch movie also incorporates contemporary filmmaking technology like body cameras and drones. This helps break the movie out of the constraints of the found footage format. The various cameras allow the filmmakers to cut between different angles and make sequences that are more visually interesting than the average found footage horror picture. It also solves the credibility problem; at some point in virtually all of these movies it becomes unbelievable that these characters would continue filming. But in Blair Witch the rationale for the footage is mostly credible. Blair Witch is also successfully scary in a similar way as the 1999 film. This scares are predicated on the power of suggestion and the moviemakers effectively use darkness and sound. Even though the film has a few obnoxious red herring scares, the last thirty minutes of Blair Witch are terrifically intense. 

What Doesn’t: Blair Witch is as much a remake of the original film as it is a sequel. A lot of elements and key images of the 1999 film recur here but the callbacks are frequently hollow and the new film is a missed opportunity. While the other Blair Witch sequel, 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was roundly panned, that film did at least try to bring a fresh approach to the material. The new film is the same thing over again and it does not expand the mythology of the Blair Witch. There is an inherent folly to remaking The Blair Witch Project insofar as the filmmakers are trying to recapture lightening in a bottle. The original Blair Witch Project was a unique film whose success was due to the time in which it was made. In 1999 filmmaking was still a novel enterprise (no one had a cell phone with a video camera) and the public was unfamiliar with the concept of a found footage movie. In addition, The Blair Witch Project benefitted from a viral marketing campaign—among the first of its kind—that blurred the distinction between fact and fiction. All of those elements coalesced into a film that touched a cultural nerve. 2016’s Blair Witch comes not only after its predecessor but also after such great found footage horror pictures as [Rec], Cloverfield, Unfriended, and the original Paranormal Activity. The audience has seen this before and what was innovative seventeen years ago is now cliché. The new Blair Witch is slightly more polished than its predecessor but even that diminishes the film. The roughness and shoddiness of the original picture was part of what made it scary. Cleaning up the imagery robs the material of its impact.

Bottom Line: If 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was a piece of art, then 2016’s Blair Witch is an industrial product. But it’s a well-made industrial product that is enjoyably frightening. It’s doubtful that anyone will recall this film in two decades but it is a successful scary movie. 

Episode: #613 (September 25, 2016)