From the Vault: Blair Witch

In the first of our new From The Vault series, we pluck out unfinished articles from the archives of unpublished material, sitting in the Failed Critics drafts folder, and spruce it up a bit before finally hitting that publish button. First up, Owen Hughes’s long forgotten review of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s found-footage collaboration, Blair Witch.
Originally written: September 2016

Just for a moment, imagine that you too were 13 or 14 years old in 1999 when a grainy, low-budget, heavily marketed The Blair Witch Project burst onto the scene, forever defining how you would view what constitutes a scary film. When we hit ‘play’ on that pirate VHS copy of the found-footage horror, it blew my tiny little mind. Yet the impact it had one me personally pales in comparison to the impact it had on cinema as a whole. It almost single-handedly rejuvenated a barely existent sub-genre.

Critics will waggle their finger should you have the audacity to declare it the first of its kind; quite rightly citing the likes of Man Bites Dog, Cannibal Holocaust and Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, to name but a few others that preceded it. Yet it was Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s story of a group of documentarians, trapped in a haunted wood, that broke new ground in bringing the concept to a mainstream audience, entering the pantheon of pop-culture. Parodies (e.g. Scary Movie), dozens of copycats and even a non-canonical, utterly dire sequel (Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows) have all been building to this particular moment.

It’s 17 years later, we’re only now being treated to a follow-up from writer and director combo Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard. James (James Allen McCune) discovers a video tape which he believes holds the key to the mysterious disappearance of his sister Heather (Heather Donahue) in the creepy Maryland forest, supposedly haunted by the spirit of an evil old witch entity type thing.

Noted for their work in the found-footage genre on the horror anthology features, V/H/S and The ABCs of Death, and not to mention the excellent home-invasion feature You’re Next and the pulsating psychological thriller The Guest, it’s little surprise that Lionsgate trusted the duo to deliver a respectful profit-generating foray into an already established and much-loved franchise.

The success of Blair Witch hinges on their ability to please fans of the original, fans of their previous work expecting similar tone and quality, as well as those completely new to the series simply hoping for a good, proper, scary horror film without any baggage. Let’s not forget, the BBFC have rated this a 15. That means someone could have been born after the release of the original and still be old enough to see this sequel in the cinema. How old do you feel right now?

What we end up with is an unsatisfactory re-tread of everything that made the original so iconic. Out the dilapidated window flies the atmosphere, and the infamously slow and steady suspenseful build towards the inevitably sinister conclusion; and in its place is a big old pile of generic creature-feature, found-footage, genre conventions.

Our group of unhappy campers wander into the Burkittsville forest and, of course, they go missing again. Indeed, what kind of Blair Witch sequel could it hope to be without a bunch of whiny 20-somethings getting stuck in the woods? However, unlike its predecessor, which was innovative and creepy, this new version just fails to illicit any emotions one way or another for its intrepid adventurers. The plot hits virtually the same beats from start to finish. When The Blair Witch Project hit those beats, it was new, original and surprising. The fear of seeing a handkerchief being opened has never been more palpable than when Heather unfurls the blood-soaked parcel outside her tent – except for that one time where I thought my nose was running and blew it, but it turned out I had a nose bleed and discovered to my horror what can only be described as a nasal lobotomy. I’m pretty sure actual brain matter came out.

My point is that performing the same shocks, at the same pace, with the same tricks and techniques, is fine if all you want to do is homage the better movie. My feeling is that Wingard and Barrett should have pushed harder to leave behind the original and create a new intensely scary horror that they are clearly capable of doing. We’ve seen it from them already with both The Guest and You’re Next. Alas, what we’re left with is a sequel in name and plot only, but not a true spiritual successor. It reads like a Blair Witch movie, but the translation to the screen has no sense of character.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that I tried desperately to like it. It retains the found-footage technique, which is a bonus, but the shakiness of head-cam’s wobble with every movement made me feel physically unwell. But there’s some level of creativity going on with the style of filmmaking that you’d expect from these two pro filmmakers. Some genuinely good shots are captured that far exceed many of those that indie found-footage scene has been capable of thus far in this style of film.

Away from any technical aspects, the story is also layered with more mythology. Two Burkittsville residents (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) join the party to provide that small-town America anchor. What you may not know is that, as good as they are – they are genuinely the most interesting characters in Blair Witch, and I include the Blair Witch herself in that – they were both introduced because Wingard and Barrett were worried that the previous film didn’t have enough of a mix of characters, relying almost explicitly on the three outsider documentarians. They wanted to bring “local” residents into it. An odd decision, given the original did have this aspect, and did it better, when they interviewed townsfolk. It’s a missed opportunity to explore the town further in the 17-year-long aftermath of the missing kids. Show me how it’s really affected the people there, if that’s what important to you. Don’t have a couple of kids explain it all and expect me to just lap it up. It’s weak storytelling and really just another reason to feel aggrieved that we’ve been cheated out of a proper sequel.

Nothing original to the series really occurs until the final 20 minutes, at which point we cross the biggest faux pas of the whole production: we see the tortured, elongated limbs and agonised expression on the face of Elly Kedward herself. In an attic, just to add insult to injury. I get it, fleshing out the backstory and the mythology of the Blair Witch is absolutely the correct avenue to travel down in this sequel. Turning it into monster movie was just one turn too many. Knowing what the woodland spectre looks like removes any of the tension. Especially when she darts around corners or avoids reflections. Please. Make it stop.

Whilst it is sometimes unfair to keep comparing a sequel made by different filmmakers to the original, I fully believe it’s completely justified in this case given the constant call-backs, allusions to and plain outright plagiarisation of its superior predecessor. Blair Witch doesn’t have, nor does it really try to have, any identity of its own. This could been set in any woods, anywhere in the world, about any other set of circumstances that led the group out there in the first place, and the film would hardly have differed itself from any of the other hundreds of Blair Witch knock-offs out there. It’s a hugely disappointing follow up – but I have not lost faith in Wingard and Barrett! You’re better than this.

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