Blair Witch replaces original excitement with convergent blandness

Images courtesy Lionsgate.

Rhiannon Saegert

Blair Witch takes all the style of The Blair Witch Project and leaves behind all of the substance, resulting in a film just as shaky as the cameras it was shot on.

The film is a direct sequel, following James Donahue (James Allen McCune), whose older sister, Heather, disappeared in the woods near Burkitsville, Md. after the events of the first movie, as he and his friends search the area for any sign of what might have happened to her. His friend Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez) decides to film the search for a class project, because that worked out so well the first time.

There is some logic in updating The Blair Witch Project in 2016. As the movie loves to remind its audience, technology has come a long way since 1999. These doomed college students have ear-piece cameras fitted with GPS, walkie-talkies, a remote controlled drone camera and a few other things that are conspicuously unavailable from my own university’s equipment rental room. These are some absurdly well-equipped film students.

The sequence in the muddy tunnel, heavily featured in ads, is one of the few really interesting sequences in the film, but it doesn’t last long.

But underneath the glitchy gimmick, this is a disappointingly conventional horror film. Attractive college students go into the woods to die. There are no real surprises and no characters to truly care about. The simplicity that made the first film work is absent. The found-footage style doesn’t instantly make everything on screen feel more real, especially when in-jokes, lingering shots down actress’ tops and continual cuts between all 10-12 cameras remind the audience that they’re watching a movie.

People who hated the first one, an enduring classic, might really enjoy this. Common complaints about The Blair Witch Project are that it’s slow and boring and nothing really happens. Well, a shit ton happens in Blair Witch, to the point that the movie feels like it has ADD. It’s an over-correction. The film plays with audience expectations for a bit, but insists on bringing logic to a story that originally thrived in vagueness and fear of the unknown.

Instead of terror subtly building as the characters realize their situation, this new group of victims goes through the motions of the first movie, panics at the first sign of trouble and then makes typical bad horror movie decisions anyway. Instead of slowly succumbing to vulnerability and dread, they scream and jump face-first into the camera at every little thing for the sake of a cheap scare.

The film is a traditional sequel, but it’s so in love with memorable details from the first movie that it sometimes feels like a remake. We must begin the film with white text on a black screen that makes all the characters’ deaths a foregone conclusion. We must have a scene where the group gets lost and winds up right back where they started. We must have a scene where someone stands in the corner. It doesn’t really fit, but we’re doing it anyway.

The film tries to expand on the spatial and temporal distortion the witch seems to inflict on her victims, but never really dives into those ideas outside of a few scenes that outright state that time doesn’t quite work and the woods can shift around. That’s a scary idea, but it doesn’t get used very effectively.

The worst part is that any and all ambiguity about the witch is erased. The witch is real, she appears on screen multiple times, and she unmistakably resembles a wendigo from the videogame “Until Dawn.” The witch is also given a concrete backstory, which is, kid you not, taken almost completely from the Youtube horror series Marble Hornets.   

The titular witch of the first film, if she does exist, tops the list of horror movie monsters that needed to go undefined and mysterious. She absolutely should not be understood. Instead of letting the audience draw their own conclusions, this film spells everything out in painful clarity, constructing a nonsensical M.O. out of breadcrumbs for a monster who might not even have existed in the first film.

All that said, Blair Witch isn’t the worst horror film. Its scares are solid, even if the story gets a little ridiculous. There are plenty of freaky, effective sequences. Blood is used sparingly, but effectively, and once the ball gets rolling, the whole film is fast-paced and nearly all focused on the group’s fight for survival. But it fails as a sequel. Anyone who thought the original was dull, overrated or a waste of time might enjoy this more, but these two movies are mismatched puzzle pieces that don’t make a cohesive whole.

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