“Oh my god, did you hear that?”
Blair Witch is a direct sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Picking up 20 years after the events of the first film, Blair Witch follows James Donahue (James Allen McCune), brother of Heather Donahue from the first film, as he attempts to track down his sister, believing her to have somehow survived the famed Black Hills Forest. After picking up a tip from an anonymous source online, James brings his friends along to the very same forest that Heather was lost in, said to be haunted by the infamous Blair Witch.
As expected, hijinks ensue.
Blair Witch is most assuredly a found footage film for the twenty-first century. Whereas the characters in the first film had to make do with simple tape cameras, our heroes in Blair Witch come equipped with some fancier gadgets. Lisa (Callie Hernandez), one of James’ friends, is an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and she’s filming James’ search as a school project. She gives everyone in the group tiny ear cameras, as well as making use of a drone and various other methods of recording. This allows director Adam Wingard a tad more freedom in how he shoots the film by giving every character a perspective, as well as gives a satisfying answer to the age-old question of found footage films: “why the hell are they still holding the camera?!”
Wingard has made a name for himself in the horror scene with films such as The Guest, You’re Next, and V/H/S, and he continues to exhibit his talent fir terrifying in Blair Witch. This film is scary, multiple times I found myself dreading a character turning a corner or investigating a mysterious noise as I knew that something horrible and frightening was about to occur. Wingard knows this, and he deliberately plays with that tension to a masterful degree throughout the film. One particular sequence involving a character in a storm drain was particularly horrifying, it was genuinely the most uncomfortable I’ve felt watching a film in quite sometime.
With that said, Wingard does fumble bit in his attempts to scare. There’s somewhat of an overuse of the same jump scares that are fairly predictable in the found footage genre at this point. They’re cheap scares (it’s hard to even call them scares) and do nothing but break the tension that Wingard so meticulously builds. In a horror film, it’s better to be afraid of something terrible that might occur, rather than be afraid that an extremely loud noise is about to be heard. For the most Wingard avoids these types of scares, but it happens just enough for it detract from the entire experience. There is also a tendency for Wingard to shake the camera so violently in chaotic scenes in an attempt to create a sense of unknown and confusion, but at times it got to the point where I had no idea what the hell was going on to a bit of a ridiculous degree.
While the earpiece cameras for each character was an inspired choice and utilized well, the other gadgets and methods of filming feel a bit wasted. For instance, the drone is used twice in the film, but simply to get an aerial shot of some trees, and that’s about it. After some spooky stuff happens, Lisa sets up a static camera at their campsite to see if she can catch anything on film, but nothing comes of it. Wingard uses the personal cams very well, so it’s a shame that nothing more was done with the rest of the cameras.
When characters aren’t screaming incoherently, Wingard’s use of sound is employed quite effectively to help build tension and uneasiness. A twig broken here, a footstep there, all help create an atmosphere filled with dread and uncertainty, even if there’s a sneaking feeling of “been there, done that,” that is apparent in so many horror sequels. Especially when it follows so many beats of the original film.
If only it had followed its run-time, as Blair Witch is about 20 minutes longer than the original, and those minutes can definitely be felt. The film reaches a certain point that would’ve acted as perfect, bleak ending. Yet the film marches past the point proudly, going on for about 10 minutes too long, dragging out the conflict needlessly.
With too long of a run time and a lingering feeling of familiarity, Blair Witch fails to make its mark on the horror genre as the original film did. While Blair Witch isn’t the game changer that The Blair Witch Project was so many years ago (it effectively popularized the found footage genre after all), it’s a solid follow-up that offers its fair share of scares, and gives you the chance to become lost in the woods once again.
Just don’t go at night.