The original Blair Witch Project was not a movie. It was a moment in pop culture history that changed the landscape of filmmaking and introduced a form of mainstream horror that has become tired in today’s box office. The orbit was so much more interesting than the actual product that it left the film as a cultural touchstone rather than a fearful experience to return to.
17 years later, we are given Blair Witch — a sequel in every sense of the word and one that wants nothing more than to be an extension of its originator rather than a retread. While ambitious, that goal is not met, and the return to the woods is one marred in past indiscretions.
In terms of being a movie, Blair Witch exceeds its original. Directed by Adam Wingard (The Guest), the film once again brings a gang of teens (made up of James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, and Brandon Scott) into the woods of Burkittsville, Maine seeking answers for the disappearance of the three people from The Blair Witch Project.
More specifically, James (McCune) wants to find answers about his sister, who was the lead filmmaker (and final survivor) of the original.
In Wingard’s previous films, he has woven qualities of genre with his own sensibilities, forming a unique and fresh experience. He struggles to accomplish this with Blair Witch, and instead leans on jump scares to incite fear rather than genuine moments of true terror.
The story still lacks any true narrative ambition, but the latest entry does try to construct actual characters for us to follow. There is a clear connection between James and Lisa (Hernandez) even if one of them doesn’t notice, and three of the members of the group have a long history together and that creates a deeper bond.
But the most effective addition is creating two loner characters (played by Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), who act as the group’s guide to the woods, but (SPOILER) are revealed to have no knowledge of how to get around the large amount of space. While the first one made it the three filmmakers against the woods on their own, these character additions at least creates a sense that the myths about the woods could be unfounded and these backwood deplorables are just looking to get a rise out of the city-living tech millennials.
Blair Witch also does its best to resonate in the modern technological era. With its original coming out in 1999, it allows this entry to use the progression of technology and implement gadgets such as GPS, wireless cameras, and drones to heighten some sequences. Parts where characters are walking around the woods alone become more effective because the camera is placed as if you are seeing the action through their eyes. This technique makes it more personal and improves on just relying on the person having a camera in their hands at all times.
In the end, I wish more of these electronics were used in the most momentous scenes as they seem pushed to the sideline once the action begins.
Sadly, none of that matters as we make our way to a third act that comes copied from the original. The group is split (and picked) apart while being led to the conclusion, which is once again set in the dilapidated structure where the Blair Witch resides.
The biggest problem the film’s ending has is its tendency to overstay its welcome. As Lisa becomes one of the last members to survive, she is left to search the house on her own and what could’ve ended in 10 minutes turns into a much longer affair that tries to play to the story beats that were established early on. Adding depth is admirable, but in the ending moments, most of that is moot as the characters revert to the oblivious and silly origins this franchise is built on.
It is unfortunate that Blair Witch had to come out in the same year as the much stronger supernatural woods-related horror film, The Witch, which deals with much deeper and more resonating moral questions that adds to the fear of the story. Blair Witch steeps itself in the myth of the woods, but where The Witch keeps us at arm’s length from the hidden secrets beneath the trees, Blair Witch seems to give up and hand over anything we wanted once the group has entered the second act of the movie.
Where The Blair Witch Project succeeded at teasing us of the greater dangers around them, Blair Witch is much more interested in making you leap from your chair over the course of the movie. The scares are uninspired and don’t stick, which seems to be a quality of the franchise as a whole.
It is difficult to place the blame on Blair Witch in a genre that’s mainstream output relies so heavily on scaring audiences this way in order to leave them satisfied with the immediate experience, but it seems cheap and unearned. The greatest horror movies linger with you both through their themes and images, and Blair Witch (and to that extent, The Blair Witch Project) doesn’t seem interested in either of that.
Blair Witch is another in a long line of modern horror films aimed at giving the audience what it wants — a few scares over the course of 90 minutes — and nothing more. It is disappointing to relegate a genre to its most banal features and be satisfied with that, but it seems like it is where we are with horror today in the mainstream. It is especially disappointing for Wingard, who has shown such vivacious directing up to this point, stuck with handheld gimmicks and spooks that seem to lack any of the punch he showed prior to this.
Time will tell if this sticks as well as the first, but if it does, I think I may be scared for the next wave of horror movies like this rather than the actual Blair Witch.