I’ve only seen 1999’s The Blair Witch Project once, on release in a multiplex in Plymouth with an audience who clearly thought it was rubbish. Normally I’d find this distracting, but despite the evident disdain of my fellow audience members I found the film to be one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences I’d had since seeing Watership Down. I had the last minute of the film in my head for weeks and I wanted it out of there.
In other words, it was a great horror film. Can the new sequel live up to it?
I guess I’ve given that away in the title of this review haven’t I? Still read on please lovely audience.
Blair Witch was the object of an innovative marketing campaign by Lionsgate. It’s not unusual for films to be shot under fake titles (particularly sequels trying to keep a low profile), but the studio went so far as to create a poster and trailer campaign, complete with hyperbolic pull quotes, for the fake title The Woods. A reasonable buzz gathered around the film in horror circles, helped by director Adam Wingard being a fan favorite following his films You’re Next and The Guest (both also scripted by Simon Barrett). Then just a month before the film’s release advance screenings were held and a new marketing campaign revealed the film to be a secret sequel to 1999’s genuinely groundbreaking The Blair Witch Project.
It was a marketing coup, a genuinely bold move that got social media buzzing. Unfortunately it is the most interesting thing about the film.
I hate the term ‘hype’, you see it a lot in relation to new films, especially ones that have been hits on the festival circuit. Pretty much every new horror film that gets traction attracts accusations of ‘hype’, too often this is simply film-bore code for popular films or filmmakers the accuser simply doesn’t like. Genuine enthusiasm is not hype, a film screened at a festival receiving positive views is not being hyped. It’s just a film a lot of people like.
But (you knew that was coming, as inevitable as a jump scare in a lazy horror film), while it is thankfully rare outside of DTV junk (where certain genre magazines strive to get thier name on DVD boxes by proclaiming any old junk to be the new The Shining) hype does exist. Blair Witch’s hype largely lies in those get-a-grip pull quotes and a ludicrously over-the-top review on the website Bloody Disgusting (read it here and weep). Ridiculous hyperbole like ‘A new beginning for horror films’ and ‘One of the scariest movies ever made’ scream in your face from the poster. Positive word of mouth from a festival screening is one thing, but quotes like these appearing months in advance of other critics seeing the film smacks of a shameless attempt to (at best) drive traffic to a website and keep the advertisers happy.If Blair Witch was at least decent, I’d let this slide. Every critic including this one, has seen a film in a very good mood, or at a festival after a run of dreck, and got a little swept away. But Blair Witch is not decent. It is in fact one of the most tired and unimaginative sequels I’ve seen in some time. A film shouldn’t be held responsible for the decisions of a marketing department, after all their job is to get bums on seats by any means necessary, but I’m here to tell you to lower your expectations.
Ignoring 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 entirely, Blair Witch is a direct sequel to the low budget original. A group of student filmmakers are embarking on a camping trip into the woods near Burkittsville led by James, whose sister Heather was one of the trio that went missing in the original film. James has seen some footage online purporting to have been discovered in the woods his sister disappeared into, and thinks a barely glimpsed figure in the background might be her. With a few friends in tow, he meets Lane the grungy dark-web hacker (stoner to you and me) who uploaded the footage. Lane insists he will only take the group to where the tape containing the footage was found if he and his girlfriend can tag along shooting their own footage.
After the first night spent under a canopy of trees, things start to turn nasty very quickly. The group begins to lose track of time and one by one get split up and lost as their GPS systems (replacing the original film’s lo-fi maps) start leading them round in circles.
This is essentially a complete retread of the first film, only in colour and with digital video devices replacing 16mm film. A few ideas come in from other movies. Headcams a little like those seen in Aliens and .Rec 2, and a drone for what one of the characters describes accurately as ‘cheap helicopter shots’. Interestingly while the quality of the digital footage is variable and often blurry and indistinct, all the micro recording devices seem to have the magical ability to record in Dolby ATMOS. Where the original film traded on subtle creeping dread and an expertly paced escalation of panic, Blair Witch goes straight to eleven. This film is LOUD!
Increasing the amount of characters suggests Blair Witch will be Aliens to The Blair Witch Project’s Alien. Sadly it isn’t. Rather than reconfigure or explore the extensive mythology of the Blair Witch, Winguard and Barrett simply send their characters careering through the undergrowth screaming until the film locks into a final reel that replays key scares and lines from the original to dramatically diminished effect. Worst of all, the film lifts the one sequence that feels fresh seamlessly from the modest but far scarier British found footage film The Borderlands. And the way the film treats its African American actors is amazing in 2016, it’s like Wingard and Barrett have never seen Scream 2.Legend has it that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez the directors of the original Blair Witch rigged their location with speakers and hidden cameras, left their actors alone in the dark, and then genuinely scared the bejeezus out of them. Whatever the truth, the cast of the original film were convincingly terrorised giving performances of compelling. truth The cast of Blair Witch in contrast never feel like they are not just acting.
The advance screening I attended was enlivened by a complete tool in the front row getting increasingly irate at people laughing yelling “shut the fuck up” at the rows behind. Yet the audience (which I will say largely seemed to enjoy the film, giving it a round of applause as the credits rolled) were reacting in entirely the way the film wanted them to. Screaming, laughing and squealing like they were on a Carny Ghost Train (there’s your pull quote marketers). This is what this film is, a shallow, on rails coast through a series of tested-to-destruction scares. A mechanical experience. A loud bang, a sudden shadow over the lens, an earsplitting crackle of digital noise over a rough edit. Rinse. Repeat.