Blair Witch (2016) is what The Blair Witch Project would be if the original had been made today - which is both a compliment and a concession.
Twenty years after Heather Donahue went missing in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland, video of a new Blair Witch encounter appears online, prompting James Donahue (James Allen McCune) to return to the site of his sister's disappearance in the hope that she might still be alive. James is joined in his search by his close friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) as well as Lisa (Callie Hernandez) - a comparatively new acquaintance who wants to document the trip for her graduate thesis.
After the original Blair Witch tape surfaced, investigators scoured the woods looking for Heather but never located the dilapidated cabin featured in the video; so, in order to narrow his search, James turns to the Burkittsville couple, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who found the recent Blair Witch video, requesting the pair lead him to where exactly they discovered the footage. To ensure the friends don't suffer the same fate as Heather and her film crew, and to get the best video possible for the thesis project, James and Lisa equip their group with high-tech gear: ear-top cameras, GPS radios, night vision gear, and an aerial drone. However, no amount of preparation or modern gadgets could actually prepare the group for nightfall in the Blair woods.
One of the first films to popularize the found footage genre, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's The Blair Witch Project earned critical praise and a massive box office back in 1999. Unfortunately, the series was quickly tainted by a rushed sequel (Book of Shadows) that bore little resemblance to its predecessor. Now, sixteen years later, director Adam Wingard (You're Next and The Guest) has released a follow-up, titled Blair Witch, that should appease longtime fans looking for a more authentic continuation of the Blair Witch story but, conversely, does little to reinvent the waning found footage genre that exploded out of the 1999 film's success. In short, Blair Witch is a bigger (not necessarily scarier) sequel to the Project that stays true to Myrick and Sánchez's style and approach; though, Wingard sidelines drama and coherent plotting in service of defining Blair Witch mythology (and laying a foundation for future sequels).
For months, Blair Witch was marketed under its working title, The Woods, in order to preserve the experience for moviegoers, with no hint of its connection to the Blair Witch series, but the film itself is significantly less subtle about tethering the two together (though it ignores Book of Shadows entirely). Wingard and his frequent collaborator, writer Simon Barrett, were faced with a tough challenge: deliver a Blair Witch sequel seventeen years after the first film that would entertain modern audiences without violating what made the first Blair Witch Project so terrifying, specifically: fear of the unknown and the unseen. In their effort, the pair succeed in some aspects better than others.
Where The Blair Witch Project featured a convincing and gut-wrenching depiction of real human beings crumbling in the face of physical and emotional exhaustion, regardless of the overarching supernatural storyline, Wingard's film is populated with people and situations that exist to define the Blair Witch legend more than the cast and events at hand. Viewers gain a clearer understanding of the Blair Witch herself, and the reach of her powers, but this comes at the expense of established plot lines and relationships that go next-to-nowhere.
Unlike the original, which focused entirely on three protagonists who audiences could invest in, Blair Witch introduces viewers to six main characters that are mostly horror-movie cliches and never fleshed out beyond their function within the plot. Wingard positions James and Lisa as the driving force behind the narrative, and alludes to added layers within the group, but development of the characters and their inter-personal conflicts are abandoned once they've spent one night in the woods. Each Blair Witch cast member turns in a serviceable performance but viewers aren't challenged to actually feel for any one of them. The the main players are secondary to film's priority: once the story is rolling and the characters are in place, Wingard is driving toward a finale that is bigger in scale but falls short in emotional punch.
Blair Witch is one of the better found footage movies released in the last decade, thanks to Wingard's back-to-basics method, but audiences will also recognize a lot of familiar found footage staples within the film's frights, body horror, and overarching world-building. A higher budget and modern effects enable Wingard to inject larger scares and haunting reveals that Myrick and Sánchez could not have featured in 1999; still, once Blair Witch's characters are established and the group enters the woods, the filmmaker doesn't leave any room for humor or moments of relief. The non-stop tension will keep viewers on edge, thanks to claustrophobic night sequences and increasingly violent supernatural events, but the persistent suspense often mutes the movie's biggest jolts - since Wingard is essentially playing the same stiff note throughout (even though he occasionally hammers slightly harder on that key).
Blair Witch may alienate casual filmgoers looking for escapist entertainment that offers a traditional blend of horror and humor; though, fans of the original who want a deeper dive into Blair Witch lore, and scary movie buffs that appreciate a less-is-more approach to scares, should be satisfied by Wingard's take. Blair Witch (2016) is what The Blair Witch Project would be if the original had been made today - which is both a compliment and a concession. Wingard has produced an reverent follow-up that pays homage to Blair Witch's inventive indie roots, wipes away the Book of Shadows stain, while (forcefully) injecting enough lore and mythology to ensure audiences will not be waiting another sixteen years for a Blair Witch sequel.
Blair Witch runs 89 minutes and is Rated R for language, terror and some disturbing images. Now playing in theaters.
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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Blair Witch episode of the Total Geekall podcast.