Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
Director: Adam Wingard
Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes
In a culture dominated by reboots, sequels, rehashes, spinoffs, and fetishistic nostalgia, it was only a matter of time before 1999's seminal found footage shocker The Blair Witch Project was given the digital age makeover. Naturally, this is a tactic which completely ignores the much maligned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2; a move similarly engineered by Bryan Singer in his last two X-Men features in which he retroactivated the series in order to eradicate the memory of Brett Ratner's rather abysmal X-Men: The Last Stand.
The important thing to note about The Blair Witch Project is that it came along at a time where the very idea of found footage as a sub-genre was still fairly novel, leading many to believe that what they were seeing onscreen was, in fact, real. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's greatest triumph was responding to the post-modern landscape of horror movies at the time (i.e. Scream), by giving audiences something terrifyingly naturalistic. By casting unknown actors and sending them out into the woods with only a skeletal outline of a script, Myrick and Sanchez created an environment in which actual fears were evoked, often devising clever ways to spook their principal players at night and leaving cryptic clues along the way. To this day, the film still holds up as an iconic document of lo-fi ingenuity; influencing an entire horror sub-genre, which itself led to countless ripoffs and parodies.
Speaking of parody, director Adam Wingard (You're Next, The Guest) and frequent collaborator writer Simon Barrett, take all the wrong lessons from what made the original film so effective by concocting something which plays more like a spoof than a legitimate extension of the enigmatic mythology. Loud, chaotic, and overstuffed with cheap jump-scares, Blair Witch is a spectacular failure which aims for worshipful homage, but ends up in the realm of pale imitation. Without the name recognition, it's simply yet another shoddy found footage movie. Having Blair Witch as your title, however, feels like a sin worthy of the Salem Witch trials.
The outline for the story here is eerily familiar. James (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather, who went missing in The Blair Witch Project, uncovers some new footage online shot by a creepy couple (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), which supposedly reveals remnants of the titular evil presence. For some baffling reason, James believes his sister may still be alive somewhere in the Black Hills woods, and so he recruits budding filmmaker Lisa (Callie Hernandez), along with loyal pals Ashley and Peter (Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott) in order to get closure. Despite state-of-the-art GPS and several hi-fi cameras, including nifty bluetooth headsets and a drone, the group inevitably gets lost in the woods as the scares start escalating.
Since Wingard knows audiences can no longer be fooled into thinking the events depicted here have any basis in reality, he pivots the other way by tethering the basic narrative structure of the original film to the pacing of a manufactured, haunted house thrill ride. There's no build up of dread here, no sense of foreboding atmosphere, and no psychological toll the dire circumstances may be having on the characters. Instead, there's simply a lot of hysterical screaming, lengthy single-shot sequences which feel like a first person video game, and ridiculously heightened sound design. Save for a late sequence inside a claustrophobic crawlspace, The Blair Witch is all sound and no fury; another pointless attempt at capturing lightning in a bottle.
What's most dispiriting about The Blair Witch is that it absolutely betrays what made The Blair Witch Project so unsettling. There was a legitimate sense of mystery to that film which spawned fan theories and vociferous debate; culminating in a now iconic final image. Here, Wingard and company make the fatal assumption that we need explanations for the unexplainable; resulting in an amped-up climax which insults fans of the original property while alternately offering nothing new or surprising in its place.
Truthfully, the task Wingard and Barrett laid out for themselves was probably impossible. Stick too closely to the beats of the original, and you'll be accused of recycling past hits. Veer too off course in the opposite direction, and fans will likely complain about a lack of connective tissue. The real question that should have be posed, however, is why does this film need to exist in the first place? Today's cultural climate, especially in regards to found footage horror movies, is so vastly different than it was in 1999, that even attempting to rehash past glories feels more like a hackneyed swing at riding the nostalgia wave than a genuine attempt at creating something terrifying. What we are left with, sadly, is another lesson of the retread/sequel/remake era; that just because something worked decades ago, doesn't mean it can be repackaged for mass consumption now. Chances are, audiences will smell the staged pagan iconography from miles away.