1999s The Blair Witch Project was a seismic event. While there had been found footage films before (Cannibal Holocaust and The Last Broadcast among others), The Blair Witch Project‘s innovative marketing, identifiable iconography, iconic shots like the sniffling Heather Donahue, and the well-paced, harrowing descent to that memorable, simple end catapulted it into the box office stratosphere. The Blair Witch Project raked it in. There was a trilogy of well-received survival horror videogames, a book, and a Sci Fi channel special. A sequel was inevitable. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, though, seemed to satisfy no one, interest waned, and The Blair Witch franchise was put on ice. Since then, there’s been a bit of a debate around whether The Blair Witch Project was any good in the first place. Now, out of nowhere, the talented Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) has unexpectedly dropped a new Blair Witch film in our laps, complete once again with a truckload of hype, letting us all see for ourselves if this witch still has the power to haunt after seventeen years.
As I’d like to keep this review clean of spoilers and detail for prospective viewers, let me jump straight to it: I loved Blair Witch. If you’re a fan of the original The Blair Witch Project, then this is the sequel that you’ve been waiting for. Yes, this may come as a surprise, but 2016s Blair Witch is not a remake, but rather a loving, reverential direct sequel to the original film. You want sticks, stacks of rocks, creepy noises in the woods, Rustin Parr, and witches? They’re all here. So are snotty-nosed close-ups and starving in the woods. It’s also not just a film of empty callbacks. Wingard and writer Simon Barett aren’t afraid to build upon the mythology and events from the first film, effectively expanding the world and story of Blair Witch into territories much stranger than expected.
Putting my own enjoyment aside, though, there are issues here worth discussing. 1999s Blair Witch wasn’t a rocketing rollercoaster, rather a slow hike into horror. The characters were shown slowly disintegrating, collapsing from stress, paranoia, in-fighting, and hunger in a relatively realistic manner, all the way up to that harrowing, memorable climax. When it finished, we were left with the scenes of suffering and some nice images, but with such threadbare character development and little story, there wasn’t much to linger beyond the images. A good film, a very memorable event, but certainly thin from a story perspective. Wingard’s sequel, up until about the two-thirds mark, mirrors the slow hike feel, which can feel repetitive and well worn. Once it gets going, though, it goes and never slows down. He also adds a welcome bit of strange cosmic horror, and he leaves more than a few threads begging to be tugged at by the Blair Witch mythology-obsessed that will undoubtedly be explored in future sequels. This final third is a masterpiece. It’s creative, visually inventive, and disarming; a white-knuckle horror amusement ride. It felt like the best horror videogame I’ve never played, and for once when comparing a film to a videogame, I mean that as a compliment. As awesome as it all is – and it truly is awesome – it hurts the idea of all of this being found footage. There was a naivete and a simplicity to the images and performances in the original film that isn’t here once things kick into high gear. It’s all just too skillfully orchestrated, and once again, these characters are thinly portrayed and don’t have anything that resembles an arc.
Film is experiential. We sit in the theater with a bunch of other people, and we’re either carried away, or not. Afterwards, we’re left with the memory of it, all tied up in expectations, the audience reaction, our state of mind, whether we dropped our popcorn, or if we really, really had to run to the bathroom during the final act after guzzling an extra large pop. The Blair Witch Project was a one of a kind experience that is impossible to replicate. Before the show, I was discussing the mood at the end of The Blair Witch Project on opening night – a stark silence, followed by chuckles of relief as the audience filed out, discussions around the veracity of the claims that everything was real, and some mutters of disappointment. 2016s Blair Witch ended in a similar scene, minus any discussion around the reality of what viewers had witnessed. I expect people who don’t like found footage won’t like this one, and with hype sky-high, there’s bound to be a more than a few disappointed. Wingard smartly plays with expectations here – is the filmmaker Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez) obsessed with her film project at the expense of everything like Heather in the original, will the tensions erupt between Confederate flag bearing strangers and Peter (Brandon Scott), what’s up with that cut on her foot? There’s also the barest suggestions of playing with the legacy of the original film, the nature of film imagery and media – are those flashes we see lightning, or static? Eventually, that’s all put aside for a creative, very skillfully made, beautiful funhouse of terror. The cosmic horror existential bleakness and Twilight Zone strangeness adds just enough to make this film linger. I loved 2016s Blair Witch and it comes highly recommended. It’s a fun, technically brilliant ride. Go see it, but keep your expectations in check.