A few weeks ago I wrote about Adam Wingard (with screenwriter Simon Barrett) as one of the likely future “Masters of Horror” that’ll one day be spoken about with the reverence of a Craven or a Romero or a Carpenter. At the time, their Blair Witch project (lowercase p) had just been revealed after months of being marketed enigmatically as The Woods, and it had some positive buzz from Comic-Con but was otherwise a big wild card in the duo’s career. The question was, how would this decidedly indie filmmaking team perform in a studio franchise space? The answer: Not badly…
On The Canon podcast Simon Barrett spoke at length about what made the original Blair Witch Project (capital P) work, and it was clear he understood that its strength and staying power were in the authenticity, the minimalism, and the power of suggestion. So it’s funny, watching the sequel, that he didn’t include any of those elements in his own film. Granted, he made a good point that modern audiences, accustomed to what we now know as “found footage” wouldn’t likely respond to something as experimental as the original movie. They knew they had to deliver more “goods” this time, given that most of the criticisms of the first film boiled down to “nothing happens”.
The result: The new Blair Witch is a Hollywood-ized, glossy, modern day found footage movie packed full of jump scares, both cheap and genuine. The original’s DV camcorder photography has been replaced by an array of tiny HD head cams (one per character), full sized video cameras, and a drone; which combined with the unexplained post-editing allows for a style of cinematography bordering on traditional narrative. And the too-attractive new cast, clearly working from a script, do a good enough job but never really help sell the authenticity. There’s nary a stutter or a stumble or a realistically awkward delivery in the whole film.
The aforementioned jump scares? Prepare for loads of them. During the first half you’ll probably roll your eyes at the number of times characters spin around to find another character standing three inches from their face, silent until the perfect BOO! moment. It’s an old found footage crutch that I’m disappointed Wingard and Barrett stooped to. But in the second half, they crank up the intensity and those fake scare become all too real.
Remember how in the original Blair Witch Project the scariest things you ever actually saw were some teeth and a guy standing in a corner? If that was a problem for you, you’ll love what the new Blair Witch has in store. I won’t spoil, of course, but suffice to say you see much more concrete evidence of the supernatural this time. I’d have preferred more subtlety, but the balls to the wall approach definitely works. My eyes were glued to the screen, unblinking, for the duration of the climax, which is much longer than you’d expect.
The robust mythology of the Blair Witch is expanded further, with a number of new wrinkles but few resolutions. Seems that squirrely old witch has been beefing up her reality-bending powers over the years. It all serves to make the situation seem much more dire and hopeless, but so many threads are dangled and very few are tied up. Again, this could be an asset if you’re a fan of ambiguity, but if not you’ll most likely walk out scratching your head.
Now that I’ve seen the movie, the divided critical reception makes a lot of sense. It hits you in the face with horror instead of letting it quietly slip beneath your skin, as in certain other Witch-related movies. Your mileage will vary entirely depending on what kind of film you’re expecting when you go in.