Cloverfield isn't the only found-footage horror/thriller franchise that will have made a surprise return to the big screen this year, by the time 2016 is through. The cult horror filmmaking duo that is director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett spent years developing a project under the working title The Woods, only for the movie's true identity - Blair Witch - to be unveiled at this year's San Diego Comic-Con. Whereas this year's 10 Cloverfield Lane is neither a direct sequel nor a found-footage movie in the vein of its predecessor, Blair Witch is both of those things.
Blair Witch follows James (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather Donahue from The Blair Witch Project, as he assembles a group of friends - armed with cameras and sound recording equipment - to undertake an expedition into the forest where his sister vanished years ago, in the hope of finding out what really happened to her. Wingard's film, in that sense, is both a sequel to the original Blair Witch Project and a soft reboot of the franchise that ignores everything that happened in the infamous 2000 sequel, Blair Witch: Book of Shadows.
While Blair Witch was previously screened for a handful of journalists and critics back at San Diego Comic-Con this past July, it was also shown more recently during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival ahead of its U.S. theatrical release (this Friday, at the time of writing this). You can read on for SPOILER-FREE excerpts from the reviews by critics who caught the horror flick at TIFF 2016 - and/or click on the corresponding links to read their Blair Witch reviews in full.
Variety - Guy Lodge
A significantly more accomplished and entertaining sequel than 2000’s woeful cash-in “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” “Blair Witch” nonetheless reps something of a missed opportunity from Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, who so deftly and wittily updated 1980s horror form in their terrific, thumbscrew-tight features “You’re Next” and “The Guest.” The very title of the new film augurs a back-to-basics approach, significantly inflated budget notwithstanding, and it delivers basics in spades: a clammy-handed fear of the dark, ambiguously sinister pagan-style iconography, and so many thumpingly executed jump scares that even the characters call for a respite... Any viewers waiting for an ironic subversion of those basics, however, may be frustrated.
THR - Leslie Felperin
Getting in on the reboot racket, horror show Blair Witch relaunches the long-dormant brand, putting fresh blood in charge with director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett (collaborators on The Guest, You’re Next, V/H/S and V/H/S 2 and others) taking over the reins. However, by sticking so slavishly to the original Blair Witch film’s template, the result is a dull retread rather than a full-on reinvention, enlarging the cast numbers this time but sticking to the same basic beats... Unfortunately, despite all the similarities to its predecessor, the most glaring missing element is that sense of spontaneity that made the first film so effective.
Den of Geek - Edward Douglas
Blair Witch disguises itself as a sequel to the original Blair Witch Project, but it really is a remake, essentially the same movie that tries to use the 17 years of technology and experience making these movies to try to convince viewers into thinking this is some sort of filmmaking achievement. But it’s still found footage, which is essentially the antithesis of cinema. Sure, there’s a certain amount of cleverness needed to make it work practically, but Blair Witch cheats almost right out of the gate by having every single character rigged with an “earpiece camera”... What's worse is that if you were even moderately scared by the original movie, this one isn’t even remotely scary by comparison, and that may be the film’s biggest crime.
Digital Spy - Rosie Fletcher
While the original did so much with so little, Blair Witch ups the action, less insidiously creepy, more out-and-out grip-the-arms-of-your-chair petrifying, with a final act so soaked with dread, shocks and wee-inducing imagery it's almost unbearable. [Blair Witch Project] purists might feel there's a bit too much shown. That the ambiguity and simplicity of the original have given way to a story that's definitely supernatural (though it's not clear exactly what's going on). Others might feel conversely like it's too much of a retread of the first. But we're certain nothing here is an accident. Blair Witch is an intelligent and effective return to a beloved genre game-changer that doesn't sully the original and is almost certainly setting up for further sequels to come. If you must reboot a classic, this is how you do it.
The Guardian - Benjamin Lee
The slow-burn and entirely gore-free scares of the original [Blair Witch] have been replaced with frequently annoying jump scares, really loud random noises and an unnecessary rise in gratuitous violence... Ultimately, the only thing mustier than the Blair Witch herself is the found-footage format. Nothing about this film feels found. It’s been carefully and manipulatively packaged, marketed and sold to make a buck with a young, impatient audience. If The Blair Witch Project signalled a new dawn of horror, Blair Witch is the loud death rattle of a once exciting sub-genre, disappearing into the darkness.
Screen Daily - Kim Newman
With this commissioned sequel, filmed in secret under the title The Woods, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett [are] required to get the Blair Witch back in business... Wingard and Barrett stick as closely as possible to the structure and look of The Blair Witch Project while throwing in new characters... It’s a solid job of playing safe, which extends the creepiness of the concept, and comes up with new unnerving situations – but this is very much a product picture, tailored to fans who rejected Book of Shadows while roping in new generations of horror audiences who may be aware of The Blair Witch Project only as a backlist title.
The new batch of Blair Witch reviews is decidedly more mixed compared to the initial wave of reviews that came out of the sequel's Comic-Con showing - where sites such as Bloody-Disgusting praised Wingard's movie for being "that game-changer horror fans desperately have been waiting for"... but at the same time, cautioned "Some will laud it, others will loathe it." Wingard and Barrett's previous feature-length projects (including, You're Next and The Guest) are widely-celebrated by horror movie buffs for their throwback qualities, but are very much "cult" in their appeal. That is to say: taking their track record into consideration, it comes as less of a surprise that the duo have delivered a Blair Witch sequel/soft reboot that some see as a breath of fresh air for found-footage horror in general, while others see it as little more than "just another found-footage horror film."
Trailer footage from Blair Witch supports what most reviews (good and bad) are saying about the movie, in terms of it being closer to a soft reboot than a sequel, in many respects. You're Next and The Guest boast their fair share of overt homages and references to horror classics past too, so your own feelings about those movies may determine which side of the fence you fall on, when it comes to seeing Blair Witch as either a stylish "update" of The Blair Witch Project or just a ripoff of that game-changing horror flick. It's already been a strong year for the horror genre of both the lower-budgeted (see Green Room, Lights Out, Don't Breathe) and franchise variety (see The Conjuring 2), so hopefully Blair Witch will ultimately go down as more hit than miss for the genre, too.
Blair Witch opens in U.S. theaters on September 16th, 2016.
Source: Various (see above)