Editor’s Note: Blair Witch is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
That mini-horror renaissance that begin with The Conjuring 2 this summer and continued through Lights Out and Don’t Breathe just last month? It’s been put on hold by the deeply disappointing arrival of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s (The Guest ,You’re Next, V/H/S, A Horrible Way to Die) Blair Witch, the 17-years-in-the-making sequel to The Blair Witch Project, the 1999 micro-budget horror film co-directed by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick. Made for only 60K, The Blair Witch Project kickstarted the found-footage/horror sub-genre (a $140M domestic box-office haul almost doubled internationally all but guaranteed a nearly inexhaustible stream of imitators in the intervening years), but a rushed sequel essentially killed off any prospects for a multi-entry, decade-spanning, money-churning franchise like the Saw or Paranormal Activity series. They’ve run their course, at least for now, opening the supernatural door for a new or rebooted series to take their respective place in the hearts and minds of horror fans (hardcore or casual).
Once Wingard and Barrett remember they’re still making a Blair Witch sequel, however, they drop every intriguing idea and slip back into shaky-cam, quick-cut, jump scare mode for the remainder of the padded-out 90-minute running time.
We’re not, however, getting a reboot or a reimagining. We’re getting a straight sequel (the less said about the ill-dated, financially disastrous Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the better, if not for audiences, then for the producers), a sequel that’s not really a sequel, but a remake with twice the characters and half (or less) the scares. Picking up roughly fifteen years after The Blair Witch Project, the sequel/remake centers on James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of the first film’s Heather (Heather Donahue). Wingard and Barrett take a broad strokes approach to James’ motivation: He’s haunted by his sister’s mysterious disappearance, hoping against hope that she’s somehow survived in the supposedly haunted forest outside Burkittsville, Maryland for a decade and a half. How do we know? Because James repeatedly tells the camera, a direct stand-in for the audience on the flip side of the screen.
He’s motivated by his sister’s disappearance, but Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a wannabe filmmaker, has another motivation altogether: Self-interest. Taking James back out into the woods and recording his every thought and experience will provide Lisa with material for her documentary project. It’s more than a bit mercenary, but Wingard and Barrett push Lisa’s motivation into the background, the occasional, tangential source of low-level conflict. Rather than expand the story in new, novel, or intriguing directions, though, Wingard and Barrett opt instead for treating the sequel as a greatest hits compilation, running through many of the same ideas, set-ups, and payoffs of The Blair Witch Project, up to and including a finale set inside the same (or similar) run-down, ghost-haunted house of the original, but with two times the characters. The non-James, non-Lisa characters include James’ longtime best friend, Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter’s girlfriend, Ashley (Corbin Reid), and Blair Witch-obsessed locals, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry).
We’re not getting a reboot or a reimagining. We’re getting a sequel that’s not really a sequel, but a remake with twice the characters and half (or less) the scares.
Wingard and Barrett feint at potentially divisive conflict between Peter and Lane: Peter’s African-American, Lane’s proudly displays a Confederate flag in his home, they’re from different socioeconomic strata (Peter’s college educated, Lane isn’t, etc.), but it’s just another diversionary tactic, meant to keep moviegoers distracted for the slow-burn opening before night falls and the first signs that the six woefully under-prepared campers are not alone in the forest. Wingard and Barrett also add a promising gloss to the Blair Witch mythos: Time-distorting effects of the haunted forest (e.g., the campers sleep through the morning and early afternoon, once the second night falls, the sun doesn’t return, leaving the campers stranded, lost without a way out of a nightmarish labyrinth of trees and foliage), suggesting the characters have entered a sidereal reality, an alternate universe where the laws of our world don’t apply. Once Wingard and Barrett remember they’re still making a Blair Witch sequel, however, they drop every intriguing idea and slip back into shaky-cam, quick-cut, jump scare mode for the remainder of Blair Witch’s padded-out 90-minute running time.
While Wingard and Barrett elicit uniformly strong, convincing performances from the cast, not to mention relatively polished production values (but we’ll mention them anyway), they – and by extension, we – lose something in the process: The raw, seemingly unrehearsed performances of the original trio added a heightened level of verisimilitude that made audiences primed to believe or half-believe (thanks to genius-level viral marketing campaign) that what they were watching wasn’t made up, but a true and accurate accounting of the mysterious disappearance of the central duo. It wasn’t, of course, but for a brief moment, believing or wanting to believe gave The Blair Witch Project a visceral kick that hasn’t been equaled in almost decades. Unfortunately, Blair Witch belongs in the “never should have tried” category of unneeded, unanticipated sequels.
Blair Witch, the sequel to the 1999 Blair Witch Project, lacks the raw, seemingly unrehearsed performances of the original, and replaces them with lackluster shakycams and jump scares.