Blair Witch Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
Released by Lionsgate
Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Simon Barrett
2016, 89 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
DVD released on 23rd January 2017
James Allen McCune as James
Callie Hernandez as Lisa Arlington
Corbin Reid as Ashley
Brandon Scott as Peter
Wes Robinson as Lane
Valorie Curry as Talia
A long time has passed since some kids got lost in the woods in 1999. Who would have thought, at the time, that a snotty-nosed girl, some bundles of sticks and a few handheld cameras could revolutionise cinema as we know it? Alright, found footage already existed long before then (most notably in Italian cannibal movies) and would go on to even bigger highs with Paranormal Activity, but even the staunchest detractor of the subgenre can’t deny the importance and quality of The Blair Witch Project.
Every bit as important as the film itself (maybe even more so!) is the sense of shock and awe that surrounded it upon its release. Was it real? A hoax? Clever stunt? – To millions of people, there had never been anything like The Blair Witch Project before, and it captured a collective imagination around the world - with many a dim friend-of-a-friend or relative swearing that the footage is totally real. Now, of course, we’re all wise to the found footage game, and with even our real news having turned into fake news (and vice versa) it’d take quite the movie to have the same cultural impact that The Blair Witch Project did in 1999.
Which, to its credit, Blair Witch almost achieved with its little Mystery Box marketing stunt. Yes, The Woods was the secret sequel to The Blair Witch Project, masterminded by Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, of You're Next and The Guest fame. Having risen to prominence with their work on V/H/S and its brilliant sequel, Barrett and Wingard seemed like the perfect fit for a Blair Witch movie. And, indeed, this is certainly the case… if you ignore the past eighteen years of found footage which have filled the gap between the first Blair Witch Project and this one.
After finding evidence of her survival on YouTube, James takes to the infamous forest in search of his missing sister Heather. Yes, that Heather. Unlike the (vastly underrated) sequel Book of Shadows, Blair Witch is a direct continuation of that original story, with a group of young filmmakers hot (ish) on the trail of vanished Heather and her friends. Why they decide to film this one too, and why James is so upbeat about the whole thing is only barely explained, but the important part is that we’re back in the woods. And recording every moment of it too!
As technology has moved on since 1999, so the film is updated with drones (a nifty, underused touch) and digital camerawork (which only makes it look crisper and less ‘real’). The story is edited like a V/H/S segment, cutting between cameras and characters, always busy and usually well-composed. What this means for the film itself is an unmistakable air of artifice; that you’re always aware you’re watching a movie. Blair Witch could never hope to recreate the original film’s air of uncertainty, so it doesn’t even try. This is essentially the first film, remade for an audience who are in on the joke.
Beyond the fact that it’s a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, there’s little to set it apart from every other found-footage-in-the-woods film out there. In more ways than one, it revisits familiar territory, stomping over old ground until it’s mashed down low into the mud. Lost and confused, the youths scream endlessly and argue with each other, going round and round in circles while spooky stick figures pop up outside their tents and in the trees (some red herrings, others not). Day turns into night, and then doesn’t turn back again, the kids get separated and somehow even more lost, and eventually the house makes an appearance. Blair Witch follows the woodlands found footage template so closely that it feels like a carbon copy not only of The Blair Witch Project but also every other rip-off and imitator that has followed since. Already late to the game, Blair Witch acts like the past eighteen years never happened, telling, in its arrogance (or blindness), one of the most derivative found footage stories you’ll ever see.
This, at least, is accompanied by a bigger budget and more finesse than we’ve become used to of late. For all of the hoarse hollering, there’s an undeniable intensity to the scares when they do kick off, and this doesn’t let up until the end. It looks great too, especially in its later scenes set in, under and around the house. Wingard and Barrett’s fingerprints are lost amongst the cinema verite element (especially in the writing, which has no real voice to it), but there’s no denying the sheer technical prowess to Blair Witch. It makes found footage look cinematic, which is both a blessing and a curse to the source material.
I had hoped that my intense dislike of found footage movies (specifically those set in the woods) would be allayed by the franchise connection and the quality of the people behind the scenes, but this was not the case. For all its good intentions, Blair Witch 2016 is but a rehash dressed up as a sequel – and a vastly inferior one, at that.