There is something you should know about me before we get into Adam Wingard’s surprise sequel Blair Witch… I think the original 1999 The Blair Witch Project is a masterpiece. I revisit the film often. It’s not just a film about “three pricks in the woods who can’t hold a camera steady” it’s the single most gruellingly intense movie ever made.
This is largely thanks to its cast, who genuinely seem to be experiencing something terrifying. It’s not just found-footage fakery, the movie’s portrayal of fear wraps its spindly fingers around your heart and squeezes it for all the emotion you have. It’s the only movie I rewatch where I say to myself halfway through “maybe this time they’ll be okay,” such is the reality-bending power of both the film, and… gulp… the unknown presence deep in the woods.
This weird, other-worldly aura feels like its been preserved. Its cast never achieved mainstream success, its filmmakers remained relatively low-profile. It’s been a decade-and-a-half but you can still – if you really try – suspend your disbelief that The Blair Witch Project is a genuine found-footage document of the final days of Heather, Josh and Mikey, just as it was originally intended.
The Blair Witch Project was also the first film to popularise the found-footage horror genre (not the first, but certainly the best). And because of this gimmick, any sequel would either be a credulity-stretching retread (see the last few Paranormal Activity films) or a completely sideways step into a totally different and ultimately disappointing set of tropes (see the first rushed attempt at a sequel – Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 from 2000. Actually don’t).
So where does that leave a future sequel? No… gulp… franchise can remain dormant for long. That terrible thing in the woods can’t stay trapped wandering its filthy labyrinthine cabin (it’s a fixer-upper) forever, there are millennials that need the colour drained from their faces and wallets emptied of cash damn it! Thankfully the answer is less cynical, and better than you expected…
You make a surprise sequel that nobody knows about until a few months before release, publicising it as a completely different film (this was called ‘The Woods’ right up until its Comic Con premiere – there was even a trailer) and creating a similar ‘damn that’s clever marketing’ stir as the first film and making super-fans like us absolutely crap our pants (part excitement, part fear).
The difference between Blair Witch and other reboots/sequels is that its director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett (You’re Next, The Guest) are two of the most interesting genre filmmakers in recent years, and it was their own idea to resurrect the Blair Witch. Without them she probably would’ve stayed quietly building cairns next to tents without much fuss or attention for the remainder of her centuries.
Blair Witch is a direct sequel, of sorts. It follows Heather Donahue’s brother James as he takes documentary filmmaker Lisa and a group of friends into the Burkittsville woods in the hopes of discovering some clues as to the fate of his sister.
It’s also essentially a remake. The premise is technically the same – a group of young people, some more sceptical than others, investigate spooky goings-on in the woods. The format is the same – only it uses contemporary technology to capture the footage rather than a crappy old DV camera. And it follows exactly the same story-beats as the original – a relaxed preparation, some light characterisation, a few increasingly disturbing nights camped out, the crew get lost, someone disappears, ooooh spooky twig shapes, the shit hits the fan, then they find an old cabin in the woods.
So the ultimate question is, why would you bother seeing this when you can watch the perfectly brilliant original?
Firstly, and most importantly of all, Blair Witch is breathtakingly terrifying. It’s a lean, mean, dread-filled machine that never abates for even a second. You’re strapped in for 88 minutes of gruelling terror with little space to get your bearings or have a quick ciggy. This brief run-time ensures its fleet-footedness, dispensing its foreshadowing efficiently in a similar fashion to the original, where if you don’t catch certain clues then the eventual scares may not have the same impact.
The technological advancements made in the last 16 years also facilitate a whole new world of fright. These semi-professional, tech-savvy kids are fully equipped with blue-tooth enabled personal headsets, compact DSLR cameras, cheap portable webcams and even a drone. This means our own field of vision extends far beyond just three people’s point of view. Here we see six personal vantage points, covered from multiple angles, each with their own unique way of building tension. And when each of these vantage points shuts down or runs out of power, the feeling is one of increased claustrophobia.
This open field of vision means we see more than the original trio, who only had a couple of grainy old cameras to light their way. Without giving away any spoilers, some sporadic details are filled in as to what may or may not be chasing them through the woods, and rather than it shattering the illusion (again, see the last Paranormal Activity) it instead ramps up the horror and builds on the original mythology without colouring in your imagination too much.
Blair Witch isn’t without fault. Its characterisation is economic, staying just three-dimensional enough to get by, but that means you won’t develop the same emotional bond you did with the original campers and therefore its ‘after-the-credits power’ is diminished. And perhaps if you let the hype get to you, you may be disappointed that it’s not a “new beginning for horror movies.” Also, the small group of people leaving the screening ahead of me said it was a “big pile of shit, and just as bad as the original” – so obviously, if you’re not a fan, this won’t change your mind. I think they’d have preferred the Ouija sequel. They’re obviously morons.
However for those of you who love the pure, visceral thrill of sustained fear, Blair Witch is a slickly efficient horror attraction that locks the doors behind you, mercilessly pummels you with terror and chucks you back into the night while cackling to itself. 4/5