The 1999 film, The Blair Witch Project, heralded in a new era of horror: the found-footage faux-doccie. It was the first found-footage film I’d ever watched, and I recall feeling seasick as I walked out of the cinema. Though the story is fiction, the filming and marketing were so effective that there were some who believed it to be real, and went in search of the “Blair Witch” themselves.
The original film saw three students disappearing into a forest near the town of Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994. They were documentary makers, investigating the myth of the Blair Witch, who is said to have abducted a series of children in the 1940s. A year after the trio vanished, video footage from their cameras are found and turned into a “documentary”. It shows how they get lost in the woods, and how strange things start happening around them, and well, how they’re hunted by something never seen.
The 2016 film, Blair Witch, takes place 20 years later. James Donahue (James Allen McCune) finds new footage on the internet that appears to show his sister, Heather (one of the original missing students), alive in a cabin somewhere in the woods. As it so happens, James’ friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), is making a documentary about him and the tough time he’s had growing up with a missing sister. Along with their two other friends, Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott), the four decide to head into the forest to see if they can find Heather.
They start off by visiting the guy who found the latest footage and posted it on YouTube, Lane (Wes Robinson). Lane and his girlfriend, Talia (Valorie Curry), are a bit odd to say the least, with a Confederate flag on their wall and an insistence they come along on the camping trip in the forest, in exchange for showing James where they found the video of his sister.
And… off the idiots go. Things go awry pretty quickly and you know the plot will follow some cliché horror conventions, like the douchebag (Lane) or the black people (Ashley and Peter) being targeted first. Ashley cuts her foot while they cross a river. And Lane and Talia are banished from the group when it’s discovered the couple are responsible for tying those creepy stick figure things seen in the first film around the group’s camp site. We all know that splitting up is never a smart idea in horror. The remaining quartet are soon lost when their equipment fails and time seems to stand still in the night. One by one, they become targets of something, or someone, evil.
The Blair Witch Project was one of the first films to use the found-footage sub genre and really pioneered it, using it as a kind of nouveau fictional verité. What made the film so goddamn scary is the subtlety. The audience never sees who’s is leaving the bizarre heaps of stones or creepy AF stick figures around the camp sites. The events just seem to happen. Not once is the viewer given a chance to come face-to-face with the witch. The shaky hand-held camera causes the viewer to be as disorientated as the characters. And one of the reasons a number of people were rather foolishly taken for a ride is that the characters had the same names as the completely unknown actors. All this made the low-budget movie a cult classic.
Fast forward nearly two decades and this style of filmmaking is passé and tired. Too many Paranormal Activity films and other Hollywood horrors have made it a yawn. And while director Adam Wingard – who’s made some commercial B-grade horrors – really tries to match the first film’s successful use of suggestion, it ultimately fails. The characters in the sequel spend way too much time running around confusedly and crying in the dark forest or the abandoned cabin, being chased by the handy-cam. It’s ineffective and tedious. I almost wished we’d just meet the witch, who’d killed the characters in some bizarre way, so that it would all end.
Fans of the original The Blair Witch Project will scoff at this sequel, and once again, we have to ask questions about the insistence of studios to try and suck dry stories that should be left well alone as they are. Franchises may work for commercial horrors like Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream, but for something that’s a cult classic it simply doesn’t hold up.
Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott
Rating: 1½ out of 5