Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Producer: Roy Lee, Steven Schneider, Keith Calder, Jess Calder
Stars: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
20 years after her disappearance, James Donahue searches for his sister Heather in the reportedly haunted Black Hills Forest.
1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” (review here) became a blockbuster sensation because its appeal expanded beyond horror community exclusivity. The movie’s novel conception and inventive marketing created an event experience that permeated popular culture through everything from water cooler conversation and tie-in media to innumerable imitators, even porn parodies. Everyone and their mothers were aware of the movie and participated in its popularity whether they chose to or not, simply because it seeped so deep into the social consciousness.
When diverting in a different direction with 2000’s “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” didn’t build on that success, another sequel strategy would come into play by 2016*: Standing in the exact same spot as the first film, hoping to catch a second strike of lightning in a better-produced bottle. This is what “Blair Witch” essentially tries to do
What franchise stakeholders may not immediately realize is that the mainstream moves on quickly once a fad fades. “The Force Awakens” can drink from the same well as its originator because “Star Wars” has depth for developing its fiction even while being derivative. “The Blair Witch Project” is too narrow of a narrative to earn the same leeway. It also doesn’t have the evergreen affinity of a series such as “Star Trek” or even “Tron” for mass interest to be rekindled decades after the fact.
Horror fans in particular have even less use for another first-person film of amateur documentarians lost in haunted woods, no matter if it directly relates to the movie responsible for that setup in the first place. “Blair Witch” can’t help but be a casualty of its parent’s success, tardily arriving in a climate fatigued by the now-cliché “found footage” formula of shaky cameras and a slow build to incessant screaming at darkness.
The sequel sticks rigidly to the same outline already seen in “The Blair Witch Project,” inspiring yawns with recycled scenes of rock cairns, stick men, and standing in corners. Perceived improvements are primarily in the form of snappier pacing and sleeker production values. Yet that seasoned polish ends up counterintuitive to the atypically amateur edges that are a core characteristic of “The Blair Witch Project.”
“Blair Witch” takes place in a world where the events of “The Blair Witch Project” actually happened, although the movie made from that “found footage” does not exist. Or if it does, these characters haven’t seen it, since they need the legends of serial killer Rustin Parr and accused witch Elly Kedward recounted for the benefit of unfamiliar viewers.
It’s been 20 years since Heather Donahue vanished in Burkittsville, Maryland’s Black Hills Forest. An online video purporting to show Heather before her disappearance inspires younger brother James to take to the trees in search of his sister. This in turn inspires documentarian Lisa to make James a focal point for her class project. Accompanied by two friends and two locals, the group sets out for the forest with camera equipment in tow.
I’d recap the rest of story except there isn’t much left to summarize. If you’ve seen the first film, then you’ve seen this sequel’s identical plot beats of getting lost, yelling at each other, being chased by something unseen, becoming separated, and concluding the climax in a creepy old house.
Writer Simon Barrett explained in an interview that Lionsgate specifically planned to mimic the original movie’s structure before he came aboard to script the sequel. Barrett is a well-known talent in the thriller genre, so if he isn’t to blame for following formula, I’ll also assume that annoyingly repetitive dialogue is due to poor improvisation and not poor writing.
Hazarding a hyperbolic guess, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of the words spoken in “Blair Witch” are character names shouted back and forth. The trend is so consistently irritating that I started writing down dialogue during the last act, knowing I’d want to illustrate this point for my review. Following are actual lines delivered by one character:
(A word or two may be unintentionally added or omitted; Transcribing shorthand scrawled in a dark theater is an imperfect science.)
“Heather! Heather? Heather? Hello? Peter? Peter! Peter! Heather? Heather! Heather! Heather! Heather! Heather! Heather! Heather? Oh, sh*t. Heather? Hello? Heather! Heather! Heather!”
The camera then cuts to another person, who goes on to say:
“Ashley! James! James! James! James! James? James! Hello? James?”
I stopped at this point, as tired of writing redundant words as I was of hearing them. There are only so many things a person alone can say while searching for someone else, but how about an “are you there?” or a “where are you?” to break up the monotony?
Cinematography enjoys the addition of a drone for aerial shots and multiple earpiece cameras so the film can cut between close-ups during conversations. On paper, it seems a boon for director Adam Wingard to have more than two cameras to choose from for adjusting tempo and opening up staging. In practice, the resulting feel is closer to a traditional film than to “found footage.” This raises the obvious question of why bother pairing a 1999 style with 21st-century techniques when it doesn’t achieve the aesthetic for which “found footage” is famous?
A Slender Man stick creature and time loop conundrum factor into the fiction, though neither element is developed enough to move the Blair Witch mythology in a substantial way. Audiences are again left to invent their own story, since the one in “Blair Witch” is as thin as said stick creature.
Although disappointing and underwhelming are apt adjectives for describing “Blair Witch,” those ends don’t discount the intent. It was worth a shot to try following in the first film’s footsteps, albeit too closely, with a fresh coat of paint for appealing to a contemporary crowd. Fact of the matter is, the public at large is simply uninterested in caring about the Blair Witch mythos again in any significant capacity. At least, not when the follow-up film is too flat or formulaic to warrant a reason for paying attention.
Review Score: 40
*The main story that will be remembered about the marketing of “Blair Witch” is how it arrived suddenly and secretly under the title “The Woods.” Except this misdirection ultimately mattered only to horror fans for whom “The Woods” was even on the radar, and even then only briefly. The Comic-Con reveal in July 2016 didn’t translate into quantifiable value when the film opened two months later in September, certainly not in terms of sustained interest equating to opening weekend box office.
Another inconsequential PR tactic was grassroots groundwork laid as far back as February 2014 and then seemingly abandoned. A phony Kickstarter campaign for the documentary shot by Lisa within “Blair Witch” saw updates all the way through 2016 to perpetuate an illusion like the one that propelled the first film’s popularity. Yet it too doesn’t seem to tie into anything notable for generating widespread interest in the sequel.