Review: ‘Blair Witch’ is a brute force reminder of what worked about the original film

When I reviewed the original The Blair Witch Project, it was March of 1999. I saw it in Austin, in the apartment of a couple of my friends, thanks to Harry Knowles, who had been sent a VHS copy of the film by the filmmakers during its Sundance run. I went to Austin in February, and Harry had been sitting on his copy, waiting for us to get to town. We were there for the third Quentin Tarantino film festival at the still-young Alamo Drafthouse, and on the last night of the festival, my friends and I were set to hit the road as soon as the movies ended. We were road-tripping, and between the four of us, we figured we”d be able to do the entire drive back to LA straight through with no stops for sleep.

Harry asked us not to leave town right after the film, though. He told us to come to our friend”s apartment first, and once we were all crowded into the fairly tiny apartment and we had smoked just enough Austin skunkweed to be completely gullible, Harry got up to introduce the film. He told us it was a documentary that had screened at Sundance and that when he was sent the film, he didn”t really know anything beyond that. “I don”t know what to make of it,” he said. “It”s sort of crazy. You should see it for yourself. It”s not long, and then you guys can get going.”

Now imagine seeing the film without any hype beyond that. Someone tells you, “Here”s this thing. It is what it appears to be. Enjoy it.” What we watched in Jed and Rebecca”s living room that night absolutely scared the shit out of all of us. Charlie and Scott and Pete and I all sat there, gradually freaking out, not sure what was happening, absolutely convinced for a time that this was real. The film built to that climax in the house, there”s that strange ambiguous last shot, the film cut to black… and Harry turned off the tape. “That”s it,” he said. “That”s all they had on the tape. No credits. No nothing. Like a goddamn snuff film. Anyway, enjoy your drive.”

And laughing because he knew full well what he had just done to us, Harry wished us goodbye and we started driving through endless miles of pitch black Texas chainsaw landscape. We were convinced something was going to jump out into our headlights, and we started trying to scare each other even more. It was like we were drunk on being scared, and by the time the sun finally started to come up, none of us had slept and we were giddy from the sustained terror that the film had generated in us.

Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick had no idea what they were about to do to the film industry when they made their ultra low budget “found footage” film about four film students who vanished while filming an attempt to find some sort of evidence in the case of the Blair Witch. The story of the film is exciting because of how much is suggested but not explicit. The story of how the film was made is exciting because of how much it empowered an entire generation of filmmakers. In 2008, I moderated a panel at Comic-Con for several filmmakers including the Dowdles, Steven Schneider, Jacob Gentry and Dave Bruckner, the three friends behind the Raiders Of The Lost Ark adaptation, the producer and production designer of All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, and, finally, a young Adam Wingard. Schneider was there for Paranormal Activity, the Dowdles were there for The Poughkeepsie Tapes and Quarantine, and I think it”s safe to say that the shadow of The Blair Witch Project loomed large over the event. These were indie filmmakers, people working on the absolute fringe and making it happen, and that, more than anything, was the message that Blair Witch sent to filmmakers. It set them free, and it made it okay to embrace a video aesthetic.

One of the reasons I feel like Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows is such a strange film is because they followed up this largely successful fake documentary with a film by Joe Berlinger, a genuinely gifted documentary filmmaker, and they did it by making a film that had nothing to do with the documentary aesthetic of the first film. What a strange choice that is. Like that film or not, there”s something almost perverse about that decision. It seemed like it was a fool”s errand to try to follow up that first film, especially with a filmmaker who was already an established filmmaker when the first film came out. Joe Berlinger might have liked the first film, but I doubt it was a lightning bolt moment for him the way it was for the filmmakers sitting on that panel I moderated. It makes much more sense that now, a full 17 years later, Adam Wingard is the one making a reaction to the original movie, because he was a filmmaker who genuinely felt that influence.

Working with screenwriter Simon Barrett, Wingard has had a diverse and aggressive career over the past six years. When they made A Horrible Way To Die, it played some notable nerdy film festivals, and it got some love from genre reviewers and from the genre nerds who actually saw it. But it was the following year”s You're Next that finally struck the right nerve, and it was purchased by Lionsgate, who did their best to figure out how to translate the genuine rabid enthusiasm generated at Toronto and Fantastic Fest into a successful commercial release. It”s important to note, though, that Wingard and Barrett haven”t just worked in horror. What Fun We Were Having is much more of a thriller, co-written with Wingard”s Pop Skull co-writer E.L. Katz as well, and Autoerotic is an psuedo-anthology film about sexuality and technology, co-directed with Joe Swanberg. V/H/S, a horror anthology that they directed and wrote the wrap-around for, was another immediate festival sensation for Wingard and Barrett, and there was a sequel the following year that they were also involved in. They reunited with their You”re Next producers, Jess and Keith Calder, for The Guest, and it felt like they were getting better and better at what they were doing.

It”s been two years since that movie, though, a lifetime in the career arc of these guys so far, and part of the reason they went silent was because Lionsgate wanted to keep it a secret that they were rebooting the Blair Witch franchise with the aptly-titled Blair Witch, even going so far as putting out a trailer with a different cover title, The Woods. From the opening moments of the film, it is clear that Wingard and Barrett have mad respect for the original 1999 film, and that this is not meant to reinvent anything. This is a movie that builds on the mythology established in the first film, and that plays by the same basic rules while also offering new details, new ideas, pulling not only from the original movie but from other sources, like Curse Of The Blair Witch and The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier and even the sequel and its spin-off companion Shadow Of The Blair Witch.

It”s very simple. James (James Allen McCune) is the younger brother of Heather (Heather Donahue) from the first film. He”s grown up haunted by her disappearance and by the release of the movie that used all of her footage. If you take the first film as “real” and you think about how it would feel to see what is essentially an autobiographical snuff film, then can you imagine what it would be like to be one of the families of those kids? To have to live with knowing that the whole world watched your child or your sibling or your friend live in terror, then die under such bizarre circumstances? To have this permanent record, but no real answers? Lisa (Callie Hernandez) is his girlfriend, and she”s also a film student. She decides to make a film out of his efforts to find some clues about Heather after all these years, spurred on by a video that shows up on YouTube that appears to be shot in the same house as the end of the original film. As crazy as it sounds, James believes that he saw Heather in the footage, and that she might somehow still be out there. Sure, he was part of the search parties that were mounted looking for her, as was his best childhood friend Peter (Brandon Scott), so he knows just how hopeless that is. Even so, Lisa and Peter, along with Ashley (Corbin Reid), Peter”s girlfriend, head to the Black Hills forest to search, armed with a ton of high-tech camera gear. They hook up with two creepy local kids, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who were the ones who found and uploaded the video that got James curious in the first place, and the six of them head into the woods.

Things do not go well.

That”s the long and short of it, and if you”re not a fan of the first film, this one”s not going to win you over. It hews closely to the kind of storytelling that distinguished the first film, and Wingard is careful to play by those rules, goosing them in a few places. Did I need an explicit explanation of why Mike was standing in the corner at the end of the first movie? Nope. Not really. But do I feel like Wingard and Barrett pulled apart the entire film, right down to its nuts and bolts, in order to build something that works in all the ways a sequel should? Yes. Definitely. And like the first film, this movie takes its time building up a head of steam, only to erupt at a certain point. Once the film reaches a particular fever pitch, it sustains that level of intensity for the rest of the film. There”s no release after a certain point.

At their core, the first movie and this film are haunted houses. They are the cinematic equivalent of actually going out into the woods with a group of lunatics who are determined to scare the hell out of you, and as you run through the haunted house, it just gets crazier and crazier. There are some steps forward here including a disturbing moment with one of those stick figure things, glimpses of the things making those sounds from the first film, and more than a slight hint that whatever”s in the Black Hills came from somewhere very far away, but the details of the mythology are less important than Wingard”s understanding of what made the first film work. There is a brute level appeal to our lizard brain memories of being tiny things afraid of being eaten that sends us into genuine fight or flight mode right there, pinned to our theater seats, and either that is fun for you or it is not. But that”s the button that is being pushed here. Most of the time, filmmakers can sustain this for one sequence, for a few minutes, but these films push that as far as I think an audience could possibly accept it. It feels like the climax of this film is played at a fever pitch for a good half hour. Can it actually be that long? I don”t know. I don”t stopwatch movies. I can only tell you that it becomes exhausting in the best possible way. And in the midst of all the running and screaming and beasties and decay, the biggest scare of the entire film, the moment where it just threatens to break the character onscreen and the audience in equal measure, involves nothing supernatural, nothing outrageous, and no big sound design or jump scare. It is a perfect, ugly, real moment of physical defeat, and it got a physical reaction out of the audience I saw the film with.

The kids are fine. To really be effective in a Blair Witch movie, an actor has to be ego-free and be willing to be abused onscreen, and Callie Hernandez in particular seems to be game for anything. She works hard in the last third of the film, and I”d love to see just how crazy the actual physical side of this shoot was. Thomas Hammock might as well get included in the cast list. He”s the film”s production designer, and along with art director Sheila Haley, he”s created a truly filthy and unpleasant haunted house that feels dangerous in every corner. Louis Cioffi”s editing is sharp and effective, and cinematographer Robby Baumgartner has been careful not to cheat and capture things that Lisa”s cameras wouldn”t. Everyone does everything they can, and when it works, it really works. I do think the familiarity is a problem that is sort of a conundrum. If you do your job well and make a sequel that delivers the same sort of experience as the first film, you”ll automatically feel familiar, and if you are too different, you risk ruining whatever it was that people liked about the first film. It”s almost not fair to say that it feels very much like watching the first movie again… but it does. I liked how confident Wingard is about that final third of the film, and considering how careful he”s been about which big-name horror franchise he would or wouldn”t make, I think he”s done himself proud. He made a real Blair Witch movie. I”m not sure the film ever quite convinces me that these kids, knowing what they do, would have gone into the woods without some more support and safety nets in place, and they make some very, very dumb choices in order to keep things moving. But at a certain point, it stops being about “what would I do?” and starts feeling like a nightmare you”re caught in where you keep moving forward because you have to, not because you especially want to.

It will be interesting to see if audiences embrace this very sincere return to the world of the Blair Witch. It feels like a real test of Wingard and Barrett”s ability to cross over into a bigger commercial world, and the movie is as good a Blair Witch film as anyone could have faithfully delivered. It all comes down to how strong a hold those woods have over the modern horror audience.

Blair Witch is in theaters everywhere today.