From the Archives: Blair Witch review

From the Archives: Blair Witch review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

Let’s get one thing straight: we never needed a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. Not when it came out. Not now. Not ever. But since these things are bound to occur in the wake of such a wildly successful film, here we are. Looking back at the original film, it seems pretty impossible to continue the tale. The main characters are all presumably dead, the mythology is best left unexplored, and the monster may not even actually exist. Just about any way you can spin it, a sequel to The Blair With Project is doomed to be either a lame re-hash or a soulless expansion — both options only serving to undercut the impact of the original film. And what a film it was! Even in the present day, when we are all aware that it’s not real footage of kids in peril, the film holds up. It’s scary precisely because it’s not explicitly supernatural. The atmosphere is one of dread, and despite the excessively shaky camera and the non-stop bickering of the leads, even the most casual viewer will find themselves looking deep into the frame and asking “did I just see something spooky?!?”  It’s an active viewing experience, and it’s one that simply cannot be recreated. Something something, lightning in a bottle, something something.

Found footage wasn’t new at the time (Cannibal Holocaust for LIFE!), but to most audiences, it was a fresh take on an old thing. A remix of just what the horror genre could be. As such, audiences may be expecting Blair Witch to be a game changer. Sadly, it’s not. But then again, it really couldn’t be. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the respective director and scribe of the latest chapter in the Blair Witch saga have succeeded in doing exactly what they needed to do: they made the second best Blair Witch movie.

They remixed a remix.

Blair Witch mostly ignores the dreadful second film, short of a single reference (to my knowledge), and chooses to pick up the story in roughly the present day. The footage we are watching has been assembled from a new set of tapes/drives/DV/whatever which were found in the same woods where the original ill-fated trio disappeared. The story is that of James Donahue, little brother of Heather, the protagonist from the first film. He remembers being a young child when his sister disappeared, and after discovering some evidence that she may still be alive, he decides to set out into the woods with his friends to see what can be found. Armed with updated technology (a drone, digital video, GPS, & ear-piece cameras) the group plans to document every step of the journey.

Naturally, things go wrong.

Wingard uses the film’s first act to establish the extent to which the framing device can be applied to the story. He does a marvelous job of maintaining the found footage conceit, while using the variety of cameras and angles to introduce a more traditional visual structure into the proceedings. In the hands of a less clever filmmaker, this would come across as a cheat, but Wingard, a consummate horror-junkie, has a deep understanding of the genre (he toyed with found footage in his V/H/S 2 segment), and manages to make the most of a visual device which is all but required when shooting a Blair Witch movie. Sorry, Book of Shadows.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of visual territory left unexplored (the drone camera is so criminally underused, one wonders if maybe there’s a deleted scene in which it really gets to, um, fly) in favor of the requisite exposition needed to tie Blair Witch into the previous entries. During the first act, we are retold the myth of the witch as our characters endure a series of events which are mostly identical to those in the original film. For series noobs, this is a good thing, as you wouldn’t need to see the previous films to enjoy this one, but for fans like myself, there’s a feeling of “been there, done that” which undercuts some of the early action. Much of the mythos is essential to the final act, however, so a refresher is welcome, but in the moment it feels like wasted energy. Even so, it’s never boring. Barrett’s script utilizes just enough humor and clever dialogue (at the expense of the millennial mindset) that it’s a blast to watch the charismatic campers slowly come to terms with just how doomed they are. And boy oh boy are they doomed.

Once the housecleaning is out of the way, Blair Witch pulls out all the stops and delivers some of the finest horror filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and unlike the first film, which maintains a specific level of ambiguity, things get explicitly supernatural in a very big way. It’s been a long time since I felt the urge to watch a movie through my fingers, but Blair Witch made it happen. It found my inner child and made him wet his pants. Accelerated breathing, sweaty palms, audible groans, and more than a few moments where I jumped up from my seat … and the whole theater was doing the same. You know those trailers where they show you a night-vision shot of a crowd reacting to a film? That was us.

I’m giddy just thinking about it.

Sure, plenty of critics are going to lambaste this one for abandoning the pervasive dread of the original in favor of more traditional funhouse jolts, but that’s the difficulty of a movie like this. You’re in a lose/lose situation either way. To avoid any sort of update would result in a simple remake. To forgo the found footage style entirely would be to make Book of Shadows. Wingard and Barrett have managed to find this crazy sweet spot in which to flex their horror muscles, and they do so admirably. I simply cannot wait to see this again in another crowded theater. And when it comes out on home release, you’d better believe I’m going to watch it all alone in the dark.

The Blair Witch Project is a masterpiece. It’s truly one of the finest horror movies ever made, and Blair Witch is the best possible sequel that a horror nut could reasonably expect. It truly scared me, and I loved the experience. Yet I find myself wishing that this were an original film and not a franchise entry. Just a regular backwoods horror flick from two of the finest genre talents in the game. I’ve even got a title for it: The Woods.

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