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.