Determined to find his missing sister, a college student (and brother of The Blair Witch Project’s Heather) ropes his friends into going to search for her in the woods she disappeared in. It turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a very bad idea.
Wearable tech is a godsend. At least, it is for a certain type of filmmaker. A longstanding problem with found-footage films has been that, when the shit hits the fan (or the monster takes Manhattan), there’s that nagging question — “Why are you still filming?” A close relative of, “Why the hell aren’t you trying much harder to not die?”
There have been interesting attempts to solve the problem — most memorably with telekinesis in Josh Trank’s pre-Fantastic Four super-powered calling card, Chronicle — but the ear-cams worn in this Blair Witch sequel, remarkably in the works for five years without anyone realising it was happening, are the best real-world answers we’ve yet had.
Scary in the moment, this Blair Witch begins to fade by the time you're home from the cinema.
Set two decades after the first film (released in 1999, the original’s footage was ‘found’ in 1994, while this is dated as 2014), it ignores the cash-grab sequel that quickly followed. Instead, this latest expedition into Maryland’s Black Hills forest has family connections — lead character James (McCune) is the kid brother of The Blair Witch Project’s doomed documentarian Heather. His decision to look for her is motivated by his discovery of a shonky YouTube video he believes shows her alive.
Roping in Peter and Ashley (Scott and Reid), two of his childhood friends, and Lisa (Hernandez), a film student he has romantic designs on, they tool up (drones, GPS trackers and state-of-the-art cameras) and head out. First stop: Lane and Talia (Robinson and Curry), the two Burkittsville locals who found and uploaded the footage. It’s quickly — and reluctantly — agreed they will also be allowed to tag along, and then it’s into the woods: we have our group of six (soon-to-be-unhappy) campers.
As soon as we’re surrounded by trees — although, weirdly, it was clearly filmed in a different forest — director Adam Wingard, horror’s latest hot-young-thing after the blackly comedic but thoroughly stomach-churning You’re Next, begins to build the tension. Tales of supernatural goings-on are traded by the characters — including one about a hand reaching out of a river to snatch a child — while the backstory of Elly Kedward, the Blair Witch herself, is also revealed in more detail. Then there are the red herrings that suggest the haunting is about to begin — one character sets out alone to gather firewood before night falls, but returns without incident — which raise the anxiety levels before settling them down again. This delaying of the inevitable making the terror all the more effective when it finally does come.
But it’s the sound design that stands out. Mini jolts of fear are earned by the timing of entirely innocuous noises — the burst of static from walkie talkies, or even the crunch of the amateur cuts between scenes. And full-body lurches are achieved when the supernatural events start for real. Would their equipment record it all so cleanly? Perhaps not, but quibbling would be a nit-pick too far when much of the horror — for the audience and the characters — relies on the monster remaining unseen, hidden in the woods, or the darkness, or most often both. It’s crucial for making the film as successfully scary as it is.
Sadly, it can’t be sustained — as the finale kicks in, the ebb and flow of terror and relief are lost and with them the film’s power to frighten. It doesn’t help that none of the kids have made much of an impression either way, so there’s no real desire to see them survive, or to meet a suitably gruesome end. James is so bafflingly bland it’s difficult to see why Lisa is even remotely interested in him. Although exactly the same could be said of her. Then there’s Peter, who’s slightly angry, Talia, who has purple hair and Ashley, who cuts her foot. Of course, to call all those personality traits would be stretching it. Only Lane, with his murky background and dubious motivations, has potential, but that plot thread is ultimately squandered in favour of running and screaming in the dark.
And then there’s the spectre of the original — a genre-defining modern classic that crashed into 1999’s US summer blockbuster season like a supernaturally uprooted tree, out-performing The World Is Not Enough and Wild Wild West when the final takings were totted up at the end of the year. It’s a film that still resonates 17 years on. Scary in the moment, this latest Blair Witch will begin to fade by the time you’re home from the cinema.
Effectively scary and occasionally inventive, Blair Witch is a solid genre film both helped and hindered by its franchise’s place in cinematic history.