I’ve been deep in the woods for the last month (figuratively, not literally). With a back to back viewing of The Blair Witch Project and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and speaking in depth about the films on This Is Maryland, By The Way, I’ve been more than ready for this new incarnation. Whether it was going to be a remake or a sequel, I was on board. I’m often skeptical when it comes to any sort of horror reboot. They either delve way too deep into unnecessary backstory (Rob Zombie’s Halloween, 2010’s Nightmare on Elm Street), are inundated with CGI (2013’s Carrie) or are straight up botched, vile fuck ups that sully the name of a classic (I’m looking at you Black Christmas). Why my usual apprehensions had fallen by the wayside was because of my appreciation for the talent behind the project. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have delivered some of the best horror films in the last five years with the twisty home invasion thriller You’re Next that instills an unprecedented fear in animal masks and The Guest, a genre-bending action/thriller that asks “what is a hot guy could kill everyone?” Wingard has even proved his capability in found footage with his work in the V/H/S franchise. His short in V/H/S 2, “Phase I Clinical Trial”, is by far the scariest one out of the collective wherein man who has been given a robotic ocular implant after a car action begins to glitch causing the patient to have ghastly visions. These are two passionate filmmakers who love the genre so I expected them to produce a worthy sequel to the 1999 hit. But I said it myself when it came to the missteps ofBook of Shadows, where can you really take a sequel to the Blair Witch? We’ve now learned for the second time, nowhere.
One of the reasons the original film is so seminal is that it is the pinnacle of authenticity. Even with directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick leaving notes and character motivations for Heather, Mike and Josh, it truly is three kids out in the wilderness of Maryland shooting a movie. There’s no way you can recreate that with a major studio behind it. This 2016 version is still about teens in the forest but now they’re sexier, they’ve got more high tech cameras than a 16mm and video camcorder and they’re about to experience a whole lot of jump scares. The filmmakers seem to be obsessed with trying to make the narrative appear authentic but the harder they try, the worse it becomes. Project, maybe due to the limitations of budget and the 90’s in general, is so bare bones and that simplicity makes it work. As we open with this these new youths, collegiate documentarian Lisa (Callie Hernandez) displays her array of recording equipment including flawless earpiece cameras and a hovering drone. Where Wingard and Barrett thought raiding a Best Buy would lead to being able to capture every single angle instead devolves into a headache inducing 90 minutes as they jump between the six cameras recording simultaneously and never steady enough to get your bearings. All I wanted was for the movie to sit still but it’s like a five-year-old with an iPhone, running around, never knowing what’s worth showing. I dreamed of returning to 1999 where shots were smooth and held for longer than thirty seconds. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Jason Bourne ran through frame. With over 15 years of technological advancement, there are insurmountable glitches with the cameras plus pops and crackles whenever something gets turned on. The thought process is that it’ll convince the viewer they’re watching real footage though anyone who has ever made a home movie will attest this isn’t the case.
The film starts off with good intentions at least of being a tie-in to the original narrative. James (James Allen McCune) is the subject of the documented expedition with his friends as they travel into the woods, hoping he will find his lost sister, Heather Donahue. Two Burkittsville, pseudo-redneck natives, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), are their guides as they had uploaded a mysterious video of the now missing Rustin Parr house, the location of the final showdown in the original film. This is a universe where the footage of Heather’s disappearance exists but was not the sleeper hit of the summer. The venture into the woods is ultimately dull. Characters bicker, Peter (Brandon Scott) doesn’t like the Blair-truthers, his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin) gets her foot cut on a rock and all the drone provides is gorgeous but uneventful views of the Vancouver horizon. Up to this point, I’ve given the film some slack because I’m willing to be patient for an amazing payoff. Paranormal Activity I’d sight as having a similar pace as you’re watching a couple be normal as a demon slowly ruins their lives. Though Paranormal, a movie that has a more believable reality, ruminates in its silence. Blair relies heavily on loud sounds to build up its tension which is more annoying that intriguing. Where it becomes so vexing, is that we are never presented the rules of the titular witch. The film throws in either elements we’re already familiar with (the twig men, walking in a circle) but there’s also these new powers like warping one’s perception of time, growing sticks and/or insects inside one’s body, breaking trees, throwing tents, the list goes on! The sounds mean nothing because we’re never given grounds of what causes them. Once all these crazy things start happening, if you didn’t realize it already, you’re strapped into another average, paranormal killer horror movie.
That climax I was waiting for could have worked if we understood or could see what this witch is doing but she seems to be A) all powerful and B) the cameras are so goddamn shaky that you’re not given a moment to take in all the chaos. In a rainstorm, James locates the elusive building and runs in, believing his sister to be inside. As he and Lisa separately enter, the POVs turn into a Silent Hill game with locked doors and creepy figures lurking in the cavernous hallways. Some of the other characters are there to pop out at you but others are presumably lost forever. There’s a decent homage to Heather’s confessional which is a great note to end on but all I’ve wanted is to see the sinister apparition it’s been building towards and you can’t get a good glimpse. I knew the film wasn’t going to follow the original formula and be a psychological thriller or remotely ambiguous. I’m fine with Blumhouse-esque spooks but with too many cameras, too many people and no angle that can hold still, the movie is nearly unwatchable.
A controversial statement, but I’ll take Book of Shadows over this Witch any day. Each is a product of their era of horror. The former has a goth metal soundtrack, midriffs, tits and slasher tropes while the latter is glossy, jump scare heavy and has your typical decrepit supernatural woman. At least Shadows has an interesting meta approach to the source material and I can attest it’s entertainingly bad. It doesn’t even try to be found footage as if realizing they had no idea how to recreate that. Wingard’s contribution is just boring. Each time it alludes to the original film I was reminded how much it pales in comparison. They even make the initial Lionsgate logo grainy meaning that logo was already a part of the excavated footage we’re viewing. There’s no reason why the editing should be as incompetent as the fictional amateur filmmakers. Maybe I’ll be less harsh on this film as time passes and the heartbreak heals though I can’t foresee anything worth revisiting. This will blend into the other forgettable horror movies of 2016 like The Forest, The Darkness and probably Rings (sorry for the preemptive shade throwing on that). I’m sure Wingard and Barrett will lick their wounds and return to the genre with something more original. This is an instance of a Witch that should rightfully be left alone.