Whether you like The Blair Witch Project or not, there’s no denying that it changed horror cinema forever. Capitalizing on the burgeoning power of the Internet, it helped to not only usher in nearly two decades of found footage films in horror, but also predicted the rise of viral marketing.
Let me preface this review with some clarifications. Back in the day, I saw The Blair Witch Project on its opening weekend, only discovering it was a hoax that very same day, yet still being powerfully terrified. Although found footage horror gets a lot of (sometimes well-deserved) flak, I am one of those horror fans who vehemently defends it. I find it not only effective but genuinely scary. Plus, I am also a diehard fan of the dynamic writing and directing team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (You’re Next, The Guest). With all of this in mind, I wanted to keep my expectations in check in order to keep an open mind about Blair Witch, purposely avoiding rewatching the first film in the hopes of going in with fresh eyes.
This is why it pains me to say that Blair Witch is incredibly disappointing. Yes, it’s a decently executed film, but it left me feeling nothing, save for a nagging feeling that Wingard and Barrett are capable of so much more.
The duo’s contribution to the found-footage horror anthology V/H/S 2 (“Phase I Clinical Trials”), showcased their ability to do new things with the format, displaying humor, subversion, and scares in equal measure. Almost none of that appears in Blair Witch.
No, I didn’t revisit the original film, but after seeing Blair Witch, I went back and revisited the plot of The Blair Witch Project and realized to my dismay, that it’s nearly identical. Obviously, with the original cast members considered as missing and/or dead, the second film has to expand the universe slightly by casting new actors with established relationships to the original.
In this case, we have James (James Allen McCune) who is Heather Donahue’s brother, still hoping to find his missing sister after nearly two decades. He takes his friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), an aspiring filmmaker into the woods to look for Heather, along with their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid). Along the way, the foursome encounter Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), whose YouTube video sparked James’s interest in embarking on this journey in the first place.
The characters are flat and uninteresting, thus when the shit hits the fan we don’t really care what happens to them, something which is an ongoing problem in horror cinema but one which I never thought would hamper a Wingard/Barrett production. Maybe these characters looked good on the page, but in the final product they never get a chance to do anything and we don’t get to know them well enough to be invested in their fate.
There are some things that happen in the early part of Blair Witch that seem like they might be a great way to subvert audience expectations and generate terror. Sadly, they do not. Things that could have been explored to exploit tension – such as Lane’s Confederate flag and the African-American Peter’s reaction to it – get dropped. Even a potentially enticing body horror sub-plot (if you can call it that), generates some excitement, but again, is dropped.
What we are left with are a lot of jump scares – which technically can’t even be considered real jump scares because the tension in this film is nearly non-existent – and shaky cam that would make even the most avid found footage fan get motion sickness. It’s impossible to tell what’s going on because the depth of field in the images on-screen is so narrow that it prevents us from getting our bearings enough to be actually scared. There is some intriguing sound design, but without anything of true visual interest to hold on to, it only serves to annoy and not frighten. Blair Witch does employ some modern tech that wasn’t in existence when The Blair Witch Project was made, such as drone and earpiece cameras, but these additions add nothing to the film.
Since The Blair Witch Project is the granddaddy (or perhaps the grandmother) of found footage in horror, there were so many things it could have capitalized on to prove to audiences that it’s still the best. It doesn’t give me any pleasure to state that films that have been influenced by the original Blair Witch Project – such as Resolution, Grave Encounters, Sinister, and the [REC] and Paranormal Activity franchises – are far more effective at not only being scary, but pushing the subgenre into new territory. The second half of last year’s film The Interior featured a “lost in the woods” plot with some scenes taken almost verbatim from The Blair Witch Project, but somehow managed to be not only refreshing, but bloodcurdlingly scary.
I watch a lot of horror films, and while I admit that I and my fellow horror junkies have seen so much that we rarely experience genuine scares anymore, we still hold out hope. Even films that don’t actively frighten me can still succeed at freaking me out on an intellectual level; I can recognize something as scary even if it doesn’t frighten ME.
Yet Blair Witch is just boring. There are, admittedly, a handful of moments that made me startle, but not nearly enough to render the movie a success in my eyes. My only hope is that Blair Witch makes enough money that Wingard and Barrett can continue to develop original projects, the type that made me their fans in the first place.