★★ 1/2 Out of ★★★★★
The subtle terror of the original is replaced with jump scares.
I am of mixed mind about this movie. It has its moments, but in the end, disappoints. The first movie, of course, is the mother of all found footage shaky cam movies. The Blair Witch Project was such a sensational triumph of low-budget filming; tapping every ounce of the limited technology of the portable cameras they had, they produced something so convincing that what they did was real, that some viewers believed they had seen a snuff film. The media surrounding the introduction of the original movie all reinforced the plausibility of the movie, the real tangible sense that these kids went out in the woods and found, and got killed by the Blair Witch. It was so fresh and new, and it made SO MUCH MONEY ($248,639,000 worldwide gross on a minuscule $60,000 budget) that it changed Hollywood. It was also a movie that scared the shit out of me, leaving me unable to sleep the night I first watched it… me… a seasoned horror movie vet. (Appreciative golf claps for the original.)
A quick sequel, Book of Shadows was created to take advantage of the hype and was widely panned, actually managing to lose money and earned multiple Razzies. That movie strayed from the original found footage concept and the tonal difference crippled it. Blair Witch is the true successor to the Blair Witch mantle, and it went back to the original well. Hand-held found footage shaky cam is now back in play. The new story picks up with James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of Heather, who disappeared in the original movie, and has him and his friends Lisa, Peter, and Ashley are determined to follow up on a videotape that was found in the Black Hills Forest outside Burkittsville, Maryland. Like his missing sister, James is a budding video documentarian and is this time armed with some higher quality equipment, including a drone.
The friends set out into the woods, eager to solve the mystery of the missing sister and confront the legends of the Blair Witch when they encounter two other travelers, Lane and Talia, who ask to join them. The movie unfolds in a very familiar fashion. Early on, the exploration seems tranquil enough, with the group tradings spooky stories about what they know about the Witch. As they settle in for the evening, noises of branches breaking and rumbling startle the campers. The next day, the familiar stick figures from the original movie show up, and they decide they’ve had enough and head back home. But, they get lost, having traveled in a circle, arriving back at the original camp. Evening sets in, people start missing, more stick figures show up and suspicions turn to accusations. All of this is straight out of the first movie’s playbook.
What changes from this point is that time in the forest seems to change. The supernatural elements suggested at in the first movie are now shown, as the crew splits up and the campers get picked off. The movie concludes inside a decidedly very creepy house as the fate of the final survivors is shown. Unfortunately, the third act is where the movie loses itself. The power of the first film was that everything was suggestive. The film did not have the budget to attempt to try any special effects, and so all the horror was left to your own mind. Now that they show it, my brain went right to “This is a movie special effect” and the magic was gone. The fantastical elements, in the plot and in the effects remove that layer of realism that the original pulled off so successfully. The greatest sin is the reveal of the witch or spirit, itself.
The jump scares come often, and some of them are quite effective. There is a moment with a broken stick figure which is spectacular and shocking. Overall, however, the movie feels like a much more conventional film. It is notable that the original film really didn’t have jump scares, as all the terror was suggestive, not overt like this. The producers had a brilliant marketing scheme for the movie, keeping the production largely a secret until San Diego Comicon 2016, when they were promoting a movie called “The Woods” and then pulled back the curtain to reveal “Blair Witch” and set the audience into a frenzy. They still had the knack for a smart marketing campaign, and the acting on the movie was suitably good for this kind of fare, and the cinematography was appropriately shaky (but HD crisp this time). It has a capable horror movie director in Adam Wingard (VHS, VHS2, You’re Next). What this suggests to me was that trying to capture the magic of The Blair Witch Project was a one time deal, it was catching lightning in a bottle.