BLAIR WITCH. James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry. Directed by Adam Wingard. 89 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong supernatural themes).
Filmed and even advertised under the title ‘The Woods’, the finished product and its new title were eventually revealed to be a sequel to the originator of the modern found-footage genre back in 1999, ‘The Blair Witch Project’. My experience viewing the film has forced me to ask myself, what makes a good horror film? Is it one that has you consistently clenched in anticipation of the next deafening noise or jolting camera movement? If the only appropriate yardstick is such a film’s ability to shock and terrify, then ‘Blair Witch’ would rate off the charts. It’s terrifying. But as the experience of enduring this picture can attest, there needs to be something that will actually stay with you when the lights are back on and your heart rate returns to a level approved by your cardiologist, be it some humour, pathos, or even pause for thought. The best horror films should leave an imprint on viewers. For ‘The Blair Witch Project’, this ‘something’ was a lasting impression left by its then original found footage conceit and its restraint. In comparison, ‘Blair Witch’ has nothing to recommend it.
In the first movie, film students Heather, Mike, and Josh travelled into the haunted woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, hunting the fabled Blair Witch. After stumbling upon and entering an old, derelict house, all three suffered a mysterious but presumably terrible fate. For the sequel, Heather’s now grown-up younger brother James (James Allen McCune) has stumbled upon some footage online, which leads him to believe that Heather may still be alive in the strange house, which was never found by search parties after her disappearance. The found-footage style is this time justified by James’ will-they-or-won’t-they friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who is making a film about his search for her documentary class. Their party is rounded out by Peter (Brandon Scott), one of James’ oldest friends, and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid).
Their first stop is meeting the Burkittsville locals, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who uploaded the new video to the web after finding the DV cards buried under a tree in the woods. Though James’ plan is just to get the location of the tree from the pair as a starting point for their search, Lane and Talia leverage their knowledge to secure a position in the expedition, and the sestet head out into the woods. Where the first film had a solitary camcorder, Lisa has somehow procured a wealth of expensive kit for her student doc, and the film is shot with a combination of a high quality dSLR, ear-mounted cameras which create veritable POV footage, night vision cameras, and even a drone-mounted GoPro.
As they sit around the campfire on their first night, Lane embellishes the Blair Witch legend with creepy details. They discuss the curse which hangs on the forest, and Lane says that it is believed that the curse only takes hold when one spends the night there. As is the case for many naïve characters in horror, this ominous declaration doesn’t seem to wave any red flags, and they settle down for the night. During the night, many of the same ‘things that go bump in the night’ tricks that plagued the campers in the prequel are played upon the new party. Needless to say, their situation in the woods only goes downhill from there, with illness, infighting, and a possibly supernatural presence all taking their toll.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have collaborated on numerous occasions, creating memorable and impressive films in the same genre, including ‘You’re Next’ and ‘The Guest’. They’re smart, talented guys. They know what’s scary in this film, and they pursue it; take for example the relatively early plot twist which sees the woods plunge into endless night. Everything becomes more heightened with only the light of torch beams, each jump scare being ramped up markedly. But their previous efforts have all been original stories, albeit heavily rooted in genre tropes. With this film, though, their imagination virtually has nowhere to go. They manage to eke out a few new twists – a moment in which humanoid twig models found hanging in the trees basically become voodoo dolls sticks out – but the narrative’s constraints in meeting the expectations set by the first film constrict their flair for good horror. It is scarier than the first film, but it replaces its unease and subtlety with plenty of annoying, one-dimensional characters running around the woods with malfunctioning torches. A recipe for terror, but not one for a good film.
The wealth of footage is tightly edited by Louis Cioffi, however several moments of impressive clarity, in which it is clear where every character is, who is filming, what’s happening and so on, make the final descent into disorientating, shuddery camera shake through endless forest and unremarkable, dingy rooms more frustrating.
In the end, it seems that making a sequel to ‘The Blair Witch Project’ at all was misjudged. Its magic was singular, isolated to a special place and time. The second time around isn’t so special.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 15.