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The Blair Witch, directed by Adam Wingard, is a belated follow-up to the 1999 horror classic, The Blair Witch Project, a movie that arguably did more to revolutionize 21st century horror filmmaking and marketing than any other film. Wingard’s Blair Witch is not going to revolutionize anything, outside of effecting a possible increase in awareness of the dangers of operating a personal drone in a dense forest. However, it will likely prove an appropriately frightening experience for those looking for a pre-Halloween spook.
That’s an important distinction, because while the original film’s influence has lived on, in the decade-and-a-half since it’s release, it’s gotten a reputation as being a bit boring for some. Common complaints include “the characters are annoying”, “nothing happens” and “you don’t even get to see the monster”. If you or anyone you know has uttered these grievances, the new Blair Witch may be more your speed. It’s fast, cruel, well-shot and often punishingly scary. However, I can’t help but compare it to the original, which I saw it for the very first time this past week in order to prepare myself for the new film.
First of all, one of the more prominent accusations is essentially true: The Blair Witch Project is, by all accounts, a movie about people getting lost in the woods, but this is not to its detriment. It was a slow burn of a movie, documenting the experience of three young filmmakers slowly beginning to realize that they are in a situation from which there is no hope of escape. During the day, they wander in circles and squabble awkwardly. They cry, they starve, they try to tell jokes. During the night they are beset on all sides by unexplained noises. Horror fans looking for something more visceral eventually turned the movie about “the three kids who get mad at each other in a forest and then die” into a joke in the years after its release, but at the time it arrived, it was a different monster entirely.
Upon its initial release, many people proved willing to believe that the film, and it’s footage, were for real, and it’s hard to blame them. The film feels real, mainly because real “found footage” would logically involve long stretches of boredom and awkward, stammering dialogue, only occasionally punctuated by unexplained, enigmatic horror. Although, even “boredom” is a potentially unfair descriptor, as, even without the Witch (who remains unseen), the threat of eternal imprisonment in an inescapable forest, with limited supplies, should have been threatening enough. In other words, Project is a perfectly suspenseful and clever movie whose main conceit has become commonplace in the years since, due in no small part to the prevalence of the genre it inspired, giving it an unfair reputation as “gimmicky”. Fortunately, Netflix-horror legend Adam Wingard swooped in to update the Blair Witch lore with this new chapter, which was filmed (and even advertised) under the false title of The Woods for the better part of the year until it’s true identity was revealed to surprised audiences at this summer’s comic-con.
Wingard’s sequel (not the first, though the less said about 2000’s Book of Shadows, the better), picks up in the modern day, where the brother of Heather (James Allen McCune), the lead documentarian from the first film, has put together a crew of his closest friends to go find any evidence of her disappearance, despite over twenty years having passed. They are also bringing along cameras and film equipment, begging the implication that maybe the Witch doesn’t mind people entering her woods, but just hates when they try to film there. Maybe they need a permit?
It becomes apparent that the biggest difference between the two movies is that the most recent is an actual film, if that makes any sense. It stars attractive people who deliver written lines as part of a plot that moves along with economic precision. For one thing, the villain has a much grander and more violent sense of power. Whereas the witch’s sound effects in the first film were the result of the filmmakers making strange noises outside the cast’s improvised camp, they seem to have been achieved this time around by letting a T-Rex loose on the set. This Blair Witch is more interested in being entertaining than selling the reality of itself, and it often succeeds. What’s been lost in subtlety has been more than made up for in absolute terror. The monster is angrier and more active and shows a whole host of new, unexpected powers. You also get to see her this time, however briefly.
But although Blair Witch is ultimately effective in its scares, the majority of them are somewhat cheap jump gags, and it won’t quite linger in the conscious as long as the first one did. It’s also not quite as effective as some of this year’s other horror offerings, such as The Conjuring 2, The Witch or even Don’t Breathe, the last of which is still in theaters. However, The Blair Witch should nonetheless prove a thrilling enough venture for those looking for a truly adrenaline-fueled nightmare.