Review: Blair Witch
Director: Adam Wingard
By Rhys Tarling
Whatever you think of it now, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, an experimental psychological horror film that was made for bus change and a Doritos packet, garnered a level of hype and media attention that’s usually reserved for the A listers. Due to a confluence of timely factors like postmodernism being the hip thing (an embarrassing number of folks walked out of the theatre still believing to have witnessed real life footage) and creative internet marketing (back when the internet was still quite novel), The Blair Witch Project was a once in a lifetime phenomenon that is impossible to replicate.
It’s a film whose unique sense of horror — our primal fear of the dark, the ugliness that wells up inside of us when we’re afraid and under pressure — can only be preserved by there never ever being a sequel.
And yet here is its sequel, Blair Witch. A flick which bares the key hallmark of all ill-begotten follow ups: the core idea that more money, more blood, and more scares, will be enough to make it work and overcome its inherent derivativeness. While it’s not for lack of trying on director Adam Wingard or the cast’s part, the film is hamstrung by a lack of fresh ideas. Remember in the first film when the kids encounter those satanic trinkets outside their tent, and how unnerving that was? How when they were confused as to what those creepy things portended to, we were right there with them? Here, when it happens again, it can elicit no more than an “Ah, yes. That is what happens in those woods.” It’s like the film thinks that those trinkets and piles of rocks were scary in and of themselves, when it’s more the idea that those things (which weren’t yet iconic images because those things were, of course, new at the time) were artfully arranged around their tents while they were asleep. That’s what was scary. But doing the same thing again? It’s just schtick. Routine. Business as usual for this entity who seemingly has nothing better to do.
The textual level indicates that this picks up where The Blair Witch Project left off, with the brother of that film’s doomed main character (James Allen McCune) finding footage of his sister’s horrific experience in the woods, where dwells the Blair Witch. Hoping to find his missing sibling, he and a group of friends venture into the Witch’s domain.
The motivations and mysteries are all a pretext for things to happen like they did in the first one. The only difference is that the things that happen in this one are louder and more in your face. But for all intents and purposes, this is a beat for beat remake. Heck, just consider the purposeful lack of a number or subtitle.
None of this is to say that Blair Witch is devoid of neat elements. For one, we do get a few honest to god actual glimpses of the titular Witch this time. Although the camera never lingers on her for longer than a second, you get a sense of what it looks like: a festering old wound crudely moulded into a human shape. A uniquely terrifying and pitiable figure.
And the sound mixing is one of the best examples of technical Hollywood wizardry in recent memory. But though it’s a feat of technical accomplishment it doesn’t make it the right choice for this movie. For example, this film, like all found footage flicks, has an unvarnished verisimilitude aesthetic. So when the scares begin – the spooky noises, the demonic sounds – and the incredibly polished sound mixing blares in place of a score, it’s a subconsciously reassuring signal that what you’re viewing is well crafted fakery. It smooths the edges, plucks the teeth, and shatters the illusion. They might as well have added a creepy music score.
Nevertheless, when not going for cheap jump scares (people just loudly collide into the frame at least 6 times) the tension is occasionally palpable, and the Witch’s cabin is a rich character unto itself, a deeply gross and deeply sad character.
There is just enough good here that this retread engenders vague disappointment instead of outright anger. Blair Witch might not have had a chance at capturing the zeitgeist like the original, but they could have at least given the Witch something to do other than trolling a bunch of hapless doofuses again.