The Blair Witch Project is quite simply one of the most important films of our time. Not only did it firmly establish the “found footage” genre that has been so brilliantly been seized upon by its prodigies like Troll Hunter, REC, and Paranormal Activity; it was also the first film ever to truly benefit from a sustained internet marketing campaign when its directors spread their own DIY mythology of Elly Kedward via html back in a pre-social media age when major media outlets considered “online engagement” to be a prenup for nerds.
It wasn’t without its problems, however, as The Blair Witch Project remains -to this day- one of the most divisive horror films around. For all those who sung its praises for its cinéma-vérité approach, it had an equal amount of detractors who cited idiotic character decisions (kicking the map into the creek?!) and the lack of any actual on-screen horror as to why it was the ultimate “Emperor’s New Clothes” of the horror genre.
If You Go Down to the Woods Today…
Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next and V/H/S) should be applauded for realising the baggage this “project” came with and has nimbly manoeuvred through it to deliver a true sequel to a classic in an age where fudging the boundaries between remake and continuity has become increasingly common.
Blair Witch opens with fresh footage having been recently discovered of Heather Donahue running around “that house” in the original film and said footage is shared with her little brother, James, giving him hope that his sister might still be a resident in the Burkittvilles’ forestry after some 17 years (come on, it’s a franchise about a 200-year-old witch who can bend space-time to her will, so let’s not judge how optimistic that is, shall we?). He bandies up with his aspiring filmmaker girlfriend -the “director” this time round- and a close friend with a plus one, who then decide to venture into the ill-fated woods with another young couple who claim to be experts on the Blair Witch but are most likely conspiracy wackos.
What is increasingly mandatory for a found footage horror these days is explaining why people keep filming under increasing amounts of stress and terror, so the cast nip that one right in the bud early on by showing a veritable arsenal of tech that’ll ensure every movement of theirs will be tracked, with the silver bullet being the on-ear cameras that’ll constantly show their POV whether they want to or not. Basically, it’s the equivalent of the shoulder mounted cams from James Cameron’s Aliens, and it’s a comparison that’s dogged throughout Blair Witch‘s running time.
After a minimal set-up, the motley crew set out into the woods and after one very familiar close encounter with the ghost of Elly Kedward (twigs and tree snapping, et al), the group inevitably turns on the believers, casts them out, and makes for the safety of home. Little did they count on Elly having a controlling stake in Google maps, so they end up right back where they started and reluctantly set up camp again. Forced to spend another night in the woods, Elly really flexes her muscles this time and releases some impressive lumberjack skills to capture the dwindling group and hang Macy Day Parade-sized versions of her favorite doll around the campsite. And then the believers return in a delusional state -as if things couldn’t get any worse…
After what has so far felt like a retread with the volume turned up, the following bust up results in a character unwittingly springing a ghoulish voodoo doll booby trap that acts as the film’s starting pistol to unleash a whole new fresh level of hell. From here on in, Blair Witch becomes an unremitting roller-coaster of a true nightmare permeated with the mythos and icons of its titular legend -we even find out why the victims stand in the corner- which finally includes a smattering of screentime for the previously camera-shy witch.
If The Blair Witch Project was all slow burn and chills with Elly taunting, yet eluding, the original filmmakers’ lenses, then this sequel is all out war (that Aliens comparison again) as we’re given far more glimpses of her physique and an intimate show round of that infamous house. Yet, for all its glee in terrifying us with an effects budget the original’s directors could only have dreamed of back in the late 90’s, Blair Witch can’t quite bottle the lightning twice.
For all the kudos that must be given to Blair Witch for just getting the hell on with it, it does come at a price. It’s a film that simply refuses to take its time as proven by its paltry set-up that seems strangely ignorant -and more crucially lacking in foreboding- of what the protagonists are letting themselves in for and again by the instantaneous flare-ups in group dynamics that appear almost immediately as soon as foot meets moss in Burkittsville.
There’s also little time to develop a sense of dread when the peril makes itself so apparent within the first half an hour (Elly had barely rustled a tent-lining in that time-frame back in ’99) as trees are felled and the Blair Witch marches around like a pissed off Bigfoot looking to oust some home invaders. Then there’s an attempted body horror subplot that goes absolutely nowhere as its carrier is offed in the most mundane way and is an unfortunate echo of the “let’s see what shit sticks” approach of the risible initial sequel, Book of Shadows.
As a result, Blair Witch does end up feeling somewhat ADHD in comparison to its progenitor and you may find yourself wishing for a reprieve before the film blitzes you again, but it has such sights to show you in its rabid last half hour that you’ll probably revel in more show than tell this time round.