Blair Witch (2016) – Movie Review

blair-witch-shareBlair Witch was released on September 16th, 2016. It did not exactly set the world on fire. Expected to open to a $20 million dollar box office, the film fell short of that goal by half, opening below $10 million. Articles a plenty questioned if horror was dead because of the supposed “flop” that was Blair Witch (2016). First off, horror isn’t dead. Second, Blair Witch is not the “unnecessary” monstrosity that it has been labeled as by so many clickbait horror writers and critics.

In fact, it’s a pretty damn good horror film from some pretty damn good horror filmmakers.

Before we dive into Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s 2016 film Blair Witch I feel it’s helpful to provide a little perspective both on the Blair Witch franchise and the 2016 sequel itself.

We start back in the hot and humid summer of 1999 when first time filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez took the world by storm, popularized a genre, and through tie-in material and one of the most innovative marketing campaigns in history convinced much of the world of the following…

In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary.

A year later their footage was found.

Of course, that wasn’t exactly the case but the film they crafted stands as one of the most successful horror films of all time, and one of the most tense and full of dread of any film released in the 1990s. The Blair Witch Project was released nationwide on July 14, 1999 and is still a hot button issue in the horror community. Some horror aficionados and critics like myself hold it up as a terrifying and realistic exploration of human fear, the power of world building, and the ways in which marketing can shape reaction. Others are less favorable. The film has been lambasted for “creating” the found footage genre which is a dubious claim  considering Cannibal Holocaust, Man Bites Dog and a myriad of others predate the TBWP by nearly twenty years but the film’s incredible return on investment, earning  $248.6 million at the box office on a scant $60,000 budget, certainly popularized it.

Heather Donahue, the documentary filmmaker in The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Heather Donahue, the documentary filmmaker in The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The film is also criticized (somewhat accurately) for being simply 3 scared college kids in the woods, never showing any of the things terrorizing the filmmakers, relying too heavily on a gimmick, asking far more questions than it answered and never rising to the level of terror the marketing campaign would have you believe it should have. You may be noticing a trend with this franchise at this point.

 

 

Flashing forward 17 years we go to July 22, 2016. It’s San Diego Comic Con weekend and director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s highly anticipated horror film, The Woods is receiving a surprise screening. The critically acclaimed duo had previously worked together on horror sensations A Horrible Way To Die, You’re Next, and The Guest. The horror community waited on tenterhooks for word of The Wood’s quality but it turns out hey, it’s not The Woods anymore. Surprise! It’s now Blair Witch, a surprise direct sequel to the 1999 horror classic. The horror internet lost its collective minds. It was like Christmas. Two of the new wunderkinds were going to tackle a franchise desperately crying out for a deft hand to guide it. We were all so excited. Brad Miska from Bloody Disgusting’s early review hailed it as a “new beginning for horror films” and one of the scariest movies ever made. Early reviews were extremely positive and we were ready to believe the hype.

Then the film came out just two scant months later and the internet turned on it. Perhaps it was the “bait and switch” we were all so excited for in July. Perhaps it was the idea of Wingard and Barrett treading older ground instead of continuing to forge forward with new ideas. Perhaps it was just because people love a good dogpile. It’s probably some combination of those elements, but I’m here to tell you: Blair Witch is a good film. The greatest horror film of our generation? No. The greatest Wingard/Barrett teaming? Perhaps not. A good film? Yes. A worthy sequel to the 1999 film? You’re damn right.

Wingard and Barrett’s film sidesteps Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (which I will leave others to defend) and picks up in the world that Heather, Josh and Mike disappeared back in 1994. Blair Witch follows the younger brother of Heather Donahue from the first film, James Donahue (James Allen McCune) and his friends including documentarian Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez), childhood best pal Peter (Brandon Scott), and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid). James has brought a YouTube video (below) to Lisa’s attention. You see, he thinks the video purported to have been found in the Black Hills that his sister vanished in may have shown her briefly. Lisa who’s working on a documentary on ambiguous loss agrees to document a trek out into the woods near Burkittsville to try and find answers, or at least closure. Along the way they meet up with the uploader of the video, Burkittsville local conspiracy and occult expert Darknet666 who turns out to be a couple, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry). The couple agree to take them to where the found the tape in the woods on one condition, they’re coming with.

What follows is a gripping and spine-tingling film that has one fatal flaw.

Starting on a good foot, one of the first things to stand out in this film is just how damn good it looks for a found footage movie. The cinematography is cleverly executed in a way that both rings true to the original and the found footage conceit while managing to sidestep many moviegoers primary issue with found footage: jerky camerawork. You see what you need to see in this film. The advances in prosumer grade video equipment between 1994 and 2014 is staggering and our cast and crew puts those advances to good use here, using primarily head mounted cameras which both serves to stabilize the shots as well as solve the old found footage problem: “Why haven’t you put the damned camera down yet?” The chaotic camerawork does return when its thematically appropriate, however, when the shit really hits the fan in the third act. On another technical note, the sound design is stellar. The crew’s high grade recording equipment easily picks up much more sound and fury than Heather’s rinky mix of cameras in the original ever could have and this ability is used to the fullest. Crunching leaves, whispers in the dark, cacophonous roars, breaking trees and the mysterious things that go bump in the night are conjured in your mind even in the films more somber moments.

Much has been made as to whether this film is functionally a remake or not. A lot of the ire towards Blair Witch seems to be aimed towards its supposed rehashing of the material presented in the first. Sure. Scared kids in the woods. Spooky stick figures tied to trees. Running in the dark. An old house full of dead ends. They’re all there, sure. Child murderer Rustin Parr gets named drop. Elly Kedward, the Blair Witch herself is name dropped. The mythology of the universe is laid bare in the exposition of this film, both what was presented in the original film as well as much of what was in the expanded tie-in material like Curse of The Blair Witch and The Blair Witch Dossier, but it is done in such a way that serves the narrative. Characters have questions about what all this spooky bullshit is about, and well, they get answers. Others still have seen fit to deride the film for not answering their questions from the first film and adding yet further mysteries to the universe. To that I simply ask, what were you expecting from a Blair Witch film? I love that 17 years later the horror community still has room to fill in the gaps. I find that style of world building to be very satisfying. Myths and legends don’t have concrete explanations, why should the media about them?

Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez), the documentarian in Blair Witch.
Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez), the documentary filmmaker in Blair Witch (2016).

On that front, the film makes some very strong additions to the lore of the Black Hills, including reinforcing the time travel and pocket universe theories that have surrounded the first film since its release, adding body horror, physical apparitions and time loops. There is a lot to unpack in this film when it comes to the mythology and if I gushed about how much I love some of these additions, this piece would be more interminably long than it will already end up being. However, the fatal flaw I mentioned is in an arena where there is unfortunately little to unpack in comparison to the first film. That flaw is in the balance between characters and action.

James Donahue (James Allen McCune), Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Talia (Valorie Curry).
James Donahue (James Allen McCune), Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Talia (Valorie Curry).

The Blair Witch Project is both lauded and loathed for damn near the same reason: Nothing happens. It’s an exploration of fear, mental breakdown, stress, and panic without clearly indicated threats. You never really come to full terms with what is happening to them during the course of the film but you do end up emotionally entangled with Josh, Mike, and Heather most of all. You see those characters fray, and shrink, and finally give in to full blown terror. In an almost complete inversion of the formula of the first film, there is a lot happening in Blair Witch. Compared to the first film, its action packed. Tents and humans fly through the air, people crumple like rag dolls, mysterious injuries and infections spring up. A lot happens. Unfortunately for the overall strength of the film it happens to a lot of people you haven’t developed much of a relationship with. James, Heather’s younger brother should be a deeply compelling character. He should inherit some of the emotional weight Heather brought to the first film but he is mostly unable to. He and the majority of the characters are never fully realized which is my primary complaint with the film. The Blair Witch Project made me care a lot about the kids in the woods. This film didn’t have time.

Lane and Talia
Lane and Talia

That’s not to say the performances are weak by any stretch of the imagination, they simply don’t have enough downtime to exist in a natural state before they’re hurried and frenzied to a degree that makes the first film blush. Competent peformances all around are capped off by moments of brilliance from Wes Robinson’s Lane, Valorie Curry’s Talia, and Callie Hernandez’ Lisa Arlington. The performances are as real and as gripping as the first film, they just move to a fever pitch much, much sooner.

In trade, the film does not hesitate to put these characters through the wringer. The third act is so tense, so full of lore, and so damn frightening that it easily tempers the dissatisfaction I may have had with the characterization. Without moving into spoiler territory, Wingard seizes the opportunity to infuse his final 30 minutes with more terror, shock, and awe than I’ve seen in a mainstream horror film in a long time. Playing with a similar climax to the first film is a risky move but it pays off in the form of more addition to the lore and more genuine moments of panic and dread than I could have hoped for. Playing the overall plot close to the chest for the first two thirds of the film allows Wingard to make some bold and horrifying choices that will have you on the edge of your seat. You think you know what’s going to happen, but you don’t really. That’s a good spot to be in while watching a horror film in my book.

If you’re sitting on the fence as to whether or not this film is worth your time, it is. Overall, while Blair Witch is not a perfect film it is certainly a well crafted, beautifully designed film that works well both as a standalone story and as an addition to a universe I still find myself fascinated by 17 years later.  Despite some negative press and the backlash the film has endured, this is a well made and terrifying film that just so happens to have found itself on the wrong side of a dogpile. It’s a lot like the original in that regard.

With any luck in the end this this film will have done well enough to justify more forays into the Black Hills. I’ll be there. Just not overnight.

 

Humanstein

Nathan is a freelance writer, film critic, junk food enthusiast and founder of Humanstein.com |

Humanstein is a digital magazine with the broad focus on “Crap Nathan Likes”. In more specific terms, that means horror movies, pop culture, nostalgia, and a lot of junk food.