James (James Allen McCune) was 4 years old when his sister Heather disappeared in the Black Hills, Maryland while shooting a documentary with two friends. Almost 20 years later he is still preoccupied with finding some clue as to what happened to her. When a clip surfaces on the internet purportedly showing Heather in those woods he asks three friends, one of whom is a film student who wishes to record the trip, to trek into the Black Hills with him to look for answers about Heather’s disappearance. This film is comprised of the footage that is left behind.
I was 16 years old when The Blair Witch Project was released. I remember the auditorium was pitch black, the film had just started, and because it had been sold out, my friends and I spent the first 20 minutes or so watching The Blair Witch Project from back steps of the cinema, trying to spot any free seats. But I would happily have stayed on the steps all night, I was glued to what I was seeing, I found it so visceral and real. Found footage was a new genre to me and I adored every shaky, cinema veritae-lite moment. I still do.
The Blair Witch Project was then, and still is, one of my favourite horror films. The hasty, trashy, sequel Book of Shadows is best left forgotten as its very existence, so different from its progenitor, tarnishes its very memory. Yet The Blair Witch Project deserved not necessarily a sequel but a deeper examination of the Blair Witch mythology, which was so expertly crafted by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Merrick. There was talk of a prequel, which, as time went by, became less and less likely. 17 years passed and the Blair Witch trail went very cold, until about three months ago, when a trailer for the indie horror movie The Woods was released with a bold new title: Blair Witch. Excitement levels went through the roof: here lay a genuine found footage sequel to a film that did for camping what Jaws did for seaside swimming.
Things have changed since 1999. While the first film had been shot on camcorders with a portable audio DAT recorder, Blair Witch is an entirely digital affair, with drone cameras, blue tooth connectivity and wearable technology. It makes the story far easier to film but strangely not as engaging as its tech-dinosaur predecessor. Engaging, that is the key word here. The first film was not a story shaped around a context but rather a simple examination of that most primal of emotions – fear. Merrick and Sanchez wished to show as real a portrayal of terror as possible and the found footage element allowed them to do that expertly well. Everything else – every other found footage film that has come in its wake – is just an imitation of that. And in that we have the first clue as to why there may be a problem with Blair Witch – it is virtually the same film as The Blair Witch Project.
Let’s check the key features off: it is a found footage film based on video recordings discovered in the Black Hills woods; it contains footage of a documentary shot by a student filmmaker about the folk tale of the Blair Witch; characters get lost in the woods and discover an abandoned mysterious house. So far you could be talking about either of the two films. While Book of Shadows was criticised for being too different in tone and handling to its predecessor, Blair Witch is far too slavish to the structure of the original film. While The Blair Witch Project was an improvised film, allowing the dialogue and the growing fear between the three characters to feel organic, Blair Witch does not boast this as a feature because it feels too scripted and contrived. While the first felt real, this one feels manufactured, and with that, the dramatic hook of what made The Blair Witch Project so engaging is lost.
The biggest problem is the jostling for space that the six characters go through. There is just not enough for them all to do. While the original had three strong leads, each with a purpose, Blair Witch has six characters whose only purpose seems to be fodder for the evil in the mysterious woods. Instead of adding more drama with more characters, it instead dilutes the terror.
The original was as taut as a piano string. Its belated sequel, however, is not. While there are numerous jump scares and moments where you will hold your breath in anticipation of what might happen next, you ultimately feel a little cheated by what eventually does happen. The very same sounds in the undergrowth are heard, the same little piles of rocks are left outside tent doors and the same stick figures hang from the boughs of trees – all things you’ve seen before. These are the hallmarks of the Blair Witch and need to be present, but they are never developed upon. People go missing, maps prove useless, and characters accidentally double back on their tracks and lose the rag with each other. While never a boring film, it’s just not an interesting one as there’s nothing new or original on display. There’s only so much running and screaming and snot-nosed close-ups that the viewer can take. The only justification for these tropes is the fact that James is tracing his sister’s footsteps – it makes sense that he may indeed experience everything that she did. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to see it all again though.
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One positive element of the film is its exploration of the time lapse experienced by those in the woods, and the discovery of a derelict house we can only assume is Rustin Parr’s, adding an element of claustrophobia that was absent from the original. Yet the film goes its entire running time without deepening or expounding the Parr and Elly Kedward/Blair Witch myth, the very reason why these people become lost in the woods in the first place.
Considering the filmmakers involved – Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett themselves helped rejuvenate the found footage genre with V/H/S and V/H/S 2 – I expected more from Blair Witch. In an interview with the Verge, screenwriter Barrett said that they wanted to do something creative and different with Blair Witch but admitted that this, if successful, could set up a new franchise. So effectively Blair Witch is more a reboot than a sequel as it smacks of being a foundation as opposed to a continuation. Considering the 17 years between films, a completely new audience has arisen, one not familiar with Sanchez and Merrick’s far superior original, and they are playing to them, not fans of the first film.
Blair Witch really is a missed opportunity to develop the Blair Witch legacy – too much emphasis has been placed on the people in the woods as opposed to the reason they are in the woods. It beggars belief that this, the third film, just recreates the first film as opposed to expounding it. If you, like me, wished for a fuller examination of Burkittsville and the Blair Witch then you should pick up The Blair Witch Project Dossier. Published in the wake of the original film’s runaway success it is a compendium of fictional missing persons reports on the original characters and details the eventful days and weeks after the trio went missing, the search parties that combed the woods and the strange things they encountered. Though a shameless cash in, it is a far more satisfying continuation of the folklore and mythology than any of the subsequent films. Ultimately Blair Witch plays like an imitation of the original as opposed to a development of it or any of the characters, especially that of the Blair Witch herself. If you want a scare in the woods then I recommend 1999’s genre busting original and not this lukewarm, ill-conceived follow up.