by Elizabeth Esten & Haley GoetzBurkittsville, Maryland — a quaint town at first glance, but hidden in its dense forest is a dark secret. A few centuries ago, Burkittsville was actually known as “Blair.” A woman was accused of witchcraft, banished into the Black Hills Forest and presumed dead. It’s from this spooky mythology that The Blair Witch Project built its story on. Released in 1999, the film was a runaway success and has influenced the modern horror landscape more than anyone ever expected. Found-footage style horror has become clichéd in the past 10 years or so, with direct-to-video offerings doing nothing to expand the genre and terrible directors frequently phoning it in. But what happens when Adam Wingard, one of the best young horror directors in the business today, steps into the most hotly debated sub-genres of modern horror? A pretty solid film results.
James (James Allen McCune) is convinced that he’s seen footage of his sister, Heather, in a tape recovered from the Black Hills Forest. With the help of his best friend, Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter’s girlfriend, Ashley (Corbin Reid), and burgeoning filmmaker Lisa (Callie Hernandez), James departs for the woods to search for Heather. Before going on the expedition, they meet the two locals who recovered the tapes, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry). In exchange for information, Lane and Talia require the group includes them in their trip. But things start to get strange as the six campers journey deeper into the forest — they discover curious rock piles and hanging stick figures, and they hear odd noises at night. Is it the Blair Witch that haunts them, or is it merely all in their heads?
Blair Witch was initially titled The Woods. It appeared to be just another run-of-the-mill horror film set in a creepy, dark forest, but all that changed after this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con. It was there that Wingard announced The Woods was actually Blair Witch, and yes, it was the definitive sequel to The Blair Witch Project (as no one really wanted to call 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 the true sequel). Ever since that moment, hype surrounding the project skyrocketed. This anticipation made the film more prominent in the public eye, but it’s disappointing to see how formulaic and underwhelming the narrative of Blair Witch actually is.
In a horror movie of this style, character development is not exactly the top priority and this usually leads to an ensemble of dull stereotypes. Wingard and co-screenwriter Simon Barrett successfully avoid this trend. All of the characters in Blair Witch feel as rounded as they need to be, but more importantly, they feel like real people. James is a solid lead and we are easily led to support his search for answers, no matter how misguided the search is at times. Lisa acts as the documentarian of the group, but what I found most interesting about this director-to-be is her mild sense of selfishness, continuing to film no matter how bad the situation seems to get. The other standout characters are Lane and Talia, who may not be in the movie for long, but still help to tie in the lore of the first film. Their belief in the Witch feels genuine without them ever coming off like the conspiracy-nut archetypes you might see in a Roland Emmerich movie.The cinematography of Blair Witch is far more sophisticated (and less nauseating) than that of its precursor. While there is certainly a lot of handheld camerawork, the resolution is far better this time around. The characters each have with them a Bluetooth-like camera, which allows the audience to access their individual points-of-view. Additionally, the characters use a smartphone-operated drone, and in a bit of an homage to the film’s source material, Lane has a grainy camcorder that uses tapes as opposed to SD cards. This is a decent thing to add, as it provides another visual vantage point from which to situate the characters.
In terms of how Wingard uses the cinematography to create realism, there is less authenticity this time. In the original, the actors were given cameras to make the film themselves, but in this version there is already a preordained script and the blocking is determined ahead of time. This takes away the cinéma vérité element of the film, and makes it less like its revolutionary counterpart and more like the commercial horror ventures of today.
Wingard keeps up a decent pace at the beginning of the film and does a good job in his world and character building. Much time is devoted to allowing the characters to develop and subtly heightening the tension between them. Lane and Talia become increasingly creepy as time progresses, while Ashley gets a seemingly normal cut on her foot that grows more and more sinister as the film goes on. With all of this set up, however, the story begins to lag about halfway through. The characters barely change, and their arcs begin to feel repetitive. The pace is way too fast at the end of the film. All sorts of new elements are introduced and the action feels cluttered rather than effectively spaced out.
This jarring sense of pacing has a huge effect on the film’s “fear factor.” For the first hour, we simply watch the characters walk through the woods and get into arguments about everything from what path to walk on to where they’re going to camp. While these sections are great for character development, the scares are largely absent. Wingard is a big fan of using long takes and music cues to drive up tension and suspense, which works wonders for him in films like The Guest. But due to the limiting nature of the found-footage visual style, he struggles to create suspense throughout this film.
There are some spots where the tension is built up well, mainly due to the relatively simple sound design. However, the only way Wingard can think of upping the scariness is to employ rampant jump scares, which have no effect after the first few. It’s not until the very end that things actually become scary, and this stretch is the best-directed section in the film. The camera holds on the darkness of the woods for long periods of time, the characters’ desperation to escape is palpable, and for the first time, it doesn’t feel like a rehash of the first film.
Modern filmmakers don’t realize how hard it is to direct a good found-footage movie. Most horror films have music and more complex editing techniques at their disposal to drive up tension and fear. Found footage has more limitations, and it takes a creative director to make this sub-genre effective. Wingard does his best and even succeeds in places, but Blair Witch ends up being a solid enough movie that’s only worth a look if you’re a fan of Wingard, the lore of The Blair Witch Project or found-footage horror.
3.5 out of 5 stars