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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

Blair Witch (October 2016)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Adam Wingard, the director of well-regarded movies such as You’re Next (2011) and The Guest (2014), here delivers a faithful if ultimately uninspired sequel to the runaway hit The Blair Witch Project (1999).

The story:

James Donahue believes that a video recently posted online shows his sister Heather, who disappeared in the woods years earlier, somehow still alive. Enlisting the help of his longtime pals Peter, Ashley and film student Lisa—who wishes to make her own documentary on the subject—they track down the video’s uploaders and set off to the Black Hills forest to try and locate Heather.

Okay, Here’s Your Motivation

The film’s first montage, a grainy YouTube video being shown by James to Lisa, sets the tone of Blair Witch in two ways: it’s loud, frenzied, over-the-top, and it makes us question the soundness of James’ judgment. While we can appreciate his desperation in wanting to find his sister, the freeze-frame glimpse of an unclear figure whose face is not even entirely visible in a fleeting reflection strains credulity as a sufficient motivating factor for an expedition to the allegedly haunted woods. And while it’s true that other characters point out James’ grasping for straws, and their willingness to go along for their own personal reasons is not entirely implausible, their subsequent erratic behavior in critical situations echoes James’ initial lapse. This illustrates a general problem with the film: it is not so much a reimagining of the original film as an oddly belated follow-up which recreates, with checklist precision, the same series of circumstances. To say that it does so more boisterously and dissonantly, with a couple of minor twists, may serve as praise or criticism, depending on your taste.

Wingard also elects to stick to the first film’s found-footage format, and for the most part this decision works. In fact, it allows for a smooth introduction of new technologies—ear-bud cameras, GPS, a drone—that suggest a set of characters who have learned from the mistakes of the first disappeared group. Alas, these technical innovations are disposed of almost as quickly as they’re implemented. We do at least get a variety of angles and perspectives, and when we see things the characters immediately do not, it heightens the sensation of being stalked by an implacable force.

Combined with the drone’s gloomy aerial shots of the endless woods, the film manages, at least during its most harrowing sequences, to generate a sense of claustrophobia, fatigue, and ultimately helplessness. The concept of time distortion is also an interesting one. Watches not matching the external signs of day and night and characters perceiving the passage of time at different rates effectively denote their escalating disorientation and the sheer bizarreness of their experiences.

An Old Woman Whose Feet Never Touched the Ground – Spoilers Ahead

Blair Witch is essentially two movies jammed together. The first one, detailing the characters’ alleged motivations and the set-up for their isolation in the woods, is not good. In general there is an overreliance on overwhelming the audience with loud sounds and fragmentary images, which proves not so much scary as simply saturating. I’ve mentioned the replication of the original film’s story beats. All of this makes the first half of this movie akin to the drone it depicts; only haltingly effective, never rising above the ground of its preceding template high enough to be useful or interesting, and ultimately tangled up by poor execution. Unfortunately, getting through this unimaginative and uneven first part is necessary to get to the part that contains genuinely creepy and disturbing moments, if not exactly a major payoff.

The original film created a vocabulary of haunting images: stick figures made of twigs dangling in an ominous breeze near a campsite, a brutally dilapidated house that shouldn’t be in the woods but nevertheless is, a lone person standing in the corner of one the house’s rooms not turning back to face us, and so on. These images have a kind of totemic power and easily invoke unease and horror. Blair Witch kicks into high gear when it taps into this lexicon during its final thirty or so minutes. When James and Lisa reach the house there’s an immediate ramp-up in the film’s fright-factor, and Wingard sustains this for an impressively long time. Here at last the director moves beyond reverence for his source material to a boldly conceived extension of it. As Lisa ends up becoming the very figure shown in the original YouTube clip, a circle is closed and a noose is viciously tightened. (A similar ploy, in which the viewer becomes the viewed, was used to good effect in Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension [2015]). For some, these climactic thrills will be too little too late, but I’m glad I stuck it out.

The original film’s lack of explicit resolution or explanation remains an integral part of its appeal. The same can’t be said for this sequel, which frames itself in terms of James’ quest for his sister but fails to honor that quest one way or another. Other interesting aspects, like the temporal distortion, also end up leading nowhere but back into familiar territory. Lane and Talia, who are introduced as outsiders who don’t blend with the original group, and whose inclinations to believe the local legends appear much stronger, end up being disposed of in a way that makes them feel somewhat pointless.

There are also some tonal problems. The concrete body horror of the slug crawling out of Ashley’s leg, for example, distracts us with grossness rather than furthering the movie’s overall supernatural aesthetic. The loud “stomping” sounds (not the earlier sonic booms, which are hair-raising) of the alleged witch nearing its victims during their final moments also doesn’t align with the original chilling idea of her feet never touching the ground. It suggests a hulking beast that drags off its bodies like a predator, rather than a sinister manifestation of elemental evil.

Some viewers may be underwhelmed by the film’s lack of character development. We do get hints of depth in James and Lisa, but the rest of the cast ends up as generically as they begin. The quieter moments—as when James is helping Lisa to get a grip and breathe normally, which for an instant fogs up the lens, or when she pauses to recheck her sanity during her agonizing tunnel crawl—are compelling, but they occur infrequently. For an example of a found-footage film that kicks off with similarly broad character tropes but effectively renders them specific through their choices as the story progresses I would point to the science-fiction film Chronicle (2012).

X-files fans will find some familiar elements in Blair Witch. Fox Mulder’s narration from Season 2—“When I was twelve, my sister was taken from me, taken from our home by a force that I came to believe was extraterrestrial. This belief sustained me, fueling a quest for truths that were as elusive as the memory itself”—could practically stand in for James’ arc, if only he were more self-aware and articulate. And the idea of “lost time,” as when the group wakes up in the morning to find that it’s 2 pm, harkens back to the cult television show’s pilot.

From a narrative perspective, the found footage approach also forces us to ponder: where, and by whom, has all the footage of Blair Witch been found? And won’t this new disappearance of now six people in the same woods provoke a more serious investigation? Nervously, I contemplate the prospect of further sequels that will explore these issues.

Considering all of the above, my final verdict for Blair Witch is a reserved recommendation for devoted fans of the original, and a painless dismissal by everyone else. It’s still better than the first sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), which is mercifully not needed to follow the current movie, but that’s not exactly a strong endorsement. You should skip that one too. For adventurous audiences who want something with a Blair Witch vibe, I might instead recommend Fernando Barreda Luna’s overlooked Atrocious (2010), another found footage horror film that, despite its own shortcomings, is more innovative and memorable in the way it unnerves.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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