Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Entertainment Company
“You came back, didn’t you?”
When a grungy local named Lane (Wes Robinson) whispers this ominous line to one of his skeptical hiking companions in “Blair Witch,” it sounds tongue-in-cheek, almost even cheesy. But while it was directed at Peter (Brandon Scott), a two-time visitor to the Black Hills of Maryland, the superstitious comment could easily be applied to the audience returning from their first trip into the cursed woods in the cult classic “The Blair Witch Project.”
Before “The Blair Witch Project” came out in 1999, the found footage genre was relatively untapped. People weren’t quite sure how to receive it, and the opening text that prefaced the movie as found footage from a 1994 documentary attempt raised countless questions. Was it fake? Or was it all true? It was based on a true story, so if not entirely accurate, which parts should people be most scared of? While many loved the faux documentary — and plenty hated it — the indie flick affixed the Black Hills alongside Elm Street and Camp Crystal Lake as celebrated horror settings.
Seventeen years later, “Blair Witch” tries to repeat the success of it’s predecessor by revamping it with contemporary elements. While it’s technically a sequel, the success isn’t the only thing attempting to be repeated; “Blair Witch” might as well be called a remake with a tweaked storyline. The young explorers go into the woods with noble intentions (again), they’re spooked and tormented (again) and their inquisitive trek doesn’t quite pan out like they anticipated (again). The gang even enjoys a drunken night at a hotel before embarking on their expedition as they did in the first film, an addition that could be seen as a respectful homage or lazy writing depending on your opinion of the series. It’s more applicable than ever that if you didn’t care for the first one, you probably won’t enjoy this version.
But if you can cast aside labels and approach “Blair Witch” by watching it simply as a movie instead of watching a rehash or a continuation, it becomes an exhilarating blend of jump scares, plot pitfalls and drawn-out dread from that oh-so nauseating first-person perspective.
At the film’s opening, we see James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of Heather, the missing protagonist of “The Blair Witch Project,” nestled at a computer as he scrutinizes a tape recovered from the Black Hills. A fleeting scene from the tape depicts a visibly terrified woman fleeing through a rundown house. Convinced that the woman might be his sister and that she might still be alive, and despite the claims that the woods house a malicious witch who’s been around for centuries, James hopes to traverse the woods with his film buddies to locate his sister and document their findings.
That’s a pretty weak foundation for a story, albeit a righteous one. It’d be different if he just wanted closure, but he soundly states he believes his sister to be alive despite her being lost in the woods for 20 years. Even though the Maryland police force couldn’t find Heather and her friends with assistance from ample search parties, he’s sure he’ll be the one to crack the case. It’s probably the most obvious moment where the movie plays on the series’ fame, as that unrealistic segue into the the witch hunt wouldn’t hold up in a standalone film.
This time around, the film crew’s equipment is much more hi-tech. Outfitted with drones, over-the-ear cameras and GPS devices galore, the group is confident they can win the age-old “man vs. nature” struggle.
The modern tech employed by the team isn’t just to their benefit, but to ours as well. It permits more natural first-person views that don’t feel quite as sickening as the shaky handcams being spun around in “The Blair Witch Project.” The grainy footage from the first film has it’s old-fashioned appeal, but the detail in these new scenes can’t be beat. Towards the closing segments, the female film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez) whips her camera around in a shot that mimics the iconic scene from “The Blair Witch Project” where Heather laments her situation while only visible from the nose up. The situation presented in “Blair Witch” warrants a more zoomed-out view, but the way it’s captured in conjunction with some truly inspired and believable acting on Hernandez’s part creates the most intense scene of the entire movie.
As with any movie that utilizes supernatural ingredients, there’s a certain willingness to believe and suspension of reality that’s required from the audience. “Blair Witch,” unfortunately, takes advantage of this, testing and overstepping the boundaries of the mutual agreement. Whenever the power to distort time — an element shared by both films — is thrust into the mix, headaches are close behind as the authenticity of events is questioned. It’s not tantamount to the offensive “it was all a dream” trope, but it still feels distasteful and likens to a cop out.
In another evocative scene where Lisa scrapes through a claustrophobic series of tunnels, the mounting panic of being entrapped underground would have been satisfactory. Instead, inhuman groans and bellows are heard behind her in close pursuit, forcing her to quicken the pace. The guttural noises were presumably emanating from the physical entity (entities?) that haunted the group throughout their search. Visible threats were something absent from “The Blair Witch Project,” and while the undeniably horrifying creatures of “Blair Witch” were implemented sparingly to leave something to the imagination, the transient sightings of them make it hard to believe they’re crawling through such tight quarters with little difficulty, enchanted or not.
Much of the experience of “Blair Witch” is predetermined by prior views on the series and whether it’s perceived as a faithful remake or a one-upping sequel. If you’re a casual fan of the first installment and appreciate a horror movie that relies more on genuine scares than gore, “Blair Witch” delivers an exciting hour and a half ride. But if you often look back sentimentally on the found footage icon of 1999, this follow-up may not receive such high praise. For those that haven’t been introduced yet to either rendition of the Black Hills, it’s the perfect time to rent the first one and embark on a back-to-back witch hunt.