This has been a great year for fans of horror movies. Don’t Breathe is dominating the box office; Korea’s disturbing The Wailing deserves some Best Foreign Language Picture love; the historically accurate The Witch was divisive, but the people who liked it, liked it a lot (myself included); The Conjuring 2 was even better than the already-good original; Green Room was brutal and excellent; and none other than Stephen King called Hush “up there with Halloween and, even more, Wait Until Dark. White knuckle time.” Coincidentally, although probably not, none of these quality films are of the found footage variety. They’re scary without relying on a once-effective gimmick that’s now synonymous with titles like Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. Even 10 Cloverfield Lane, the sequel (of sorts) to one of the most famous found footage movies ever, ditched the format in favor of a third-person narrative.
The same could be said of the 2000 film Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the most direct-to-video film to ever be released in theaters. The meta premise wasn’t horrible — a group of Blair Witch fanatics visit Burkittsville, Md., where The Blair Witch Project was set — but the execution was; Book of Shadows is a run-of-the-mill psychological slasher flick that barely resembles its predecessor. A new spin isn’t always a bad thing (Furious 7 is strikingly different than The Fast and the Furious, and only a Rick Yune fanatic would argue it’s the lesser film), but Book of Shadows — with gargled songs from Nickelback and Godhead on the soundtrack — took everything that helped the scrappy original become the most successful independent movie of all-time, and made it generic.
Now, 17 years after Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard briefly became household names, The Blair Witch Project finally gets a proper sequel in… Blair Witch. (It was known as The Woods before the San Diego Comic-Con reveal.) The plot is instantly familiar: A group of photogenic friends and a local couple head to Maryland’s Black Hills Forest to see for themselves what this Blair Witch nonsense is all about. One of the friends is James (James Allen McCune), Heather’s brother who years later think she’s still alive after, in a nod to the viral marketing of the original, convincing footage is uploaded online. But the world was a different place in 1999 than it is 2016, and Blair Witch uses our technological advances to its clever advantage; the characters are equipped with cameras and tracking devices. There’s even a drone.
Unfortunately, that’s where the cleverness ends.
Here’s the part of the review where I’m obligated to share my opinion of The Blair Witch Project: I’m a fan. Maybe it’s because I saw it when I was 13 years old, at night, in the dark, at my friend’s house that was surrounded by sinister-looking trees, but it scared the sh*t out of me. I recently watched it again, and now I like it for a different reason. To paraphrase Miles Davis, it’s not the witches you see, it’s the witches you don’t see. Co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez do a wonderful job of building tension without actually showing us anything, outside of some twigs and snot. Michael facing a corner, looking at nothing, is much scarier than any talking doll or last exorcism. For a good part of its 89-minute running time (which somehow feels much longer), Blair Witch director Adam Wingard, who also worked on the must-see The Guest, does an admirable replication of this sight-unseen tenseness. There are way too many noisy jump-scares — people are always silently creeping up on other people — but every scene-splitting glitch raises the anxiety. Even if you know where the film is eventually heading.
Blair Witch goes there, and stays there, and keeps staying there, until you’re ready for it to finally end. The final 20 minutes of the film are claustrophobic, but not in the way Wingard intended; the breath I took was more of a sigh. Horror is hard to pull off because if you spend too long on something, eventually, the audience will grow tired and less scared of whatever you’re showing. That’s how I felt during Blair Witch‘s extended climax. (It’s hard to talk about the ending without giving anything away, but I will say that the “reveal” is either so goofy it’s brilliant, or maybe just plain ol’ goofy.)
Weirdly, Blair Witch should appeal more to the people who didn’t like The Blair Witch Project. It’s a response to anyone who complained about how “nothing happens” in the original. A lot happens in Blair Witch, but most of it is a bigger, more expensive variation on The Blair Witch Project. There are more stick figures! More rocks! More things that go bump (and sound like a supremely loud gunshot) in the night! More handprints! More people wandering away from the group for dumb reasons! (One underrated element of the original: The dialogue between the characters sounded off the cuff; here, it’s clearly scripted.) It’s Evil Dead II, if Evil Dead II were less funny and more formulaic than Evil Dead. Blair Witch is scary, but it lacks surprise, and without surprise, you’re left with a bunch of kind-of annoying people shakily filming themselves wandering the woods and reacting to loud noises.
In this year of daring, original horror films, Blair Witch is too afraid of its legacy to do anything new.