REVIEW: Blair Witch (2016)

blairwitch_posterYears after his sister Heather vanished in Maryland’s Black Woods, James Donahue (James Allen McCune) returns in the hope of finding out what happened to her. He brings along with him student documentarian Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and a group of friends. Once inside the woods, supernatural events begin to close in around them and the legend of the “Blair Witch” is revealed to be frighteningly real.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) was one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies, combining a great premise, an unexpected production style and a rare ability to grab hold of the cultural zeitgeist. It was a near-unparalleled phenomenon in horror cinema. Its found footage format, while not entirely new, gave it the mystique of an urban myth. It felt weirdly real. Some viewers even managed to fall into the trap of believing it was real.

Naturally with such enormous commercial success its distributor Artisan Entertainment demanded a sequel. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released the following year to fiercely negative reviews and a hostile audience that demanded a film more like the original. That seemed to be where the Blair Witch series ended, without much more than the occasional rumour of a second sequel for the following decade and a half.

That suddenly changed last year when Adam Wingard’s new horror film The Woods was unexpectedly revealed to actually be Blair Witch, a new sequel that copies the found footage format and echoes the same story beats and horror techniques that made the original so effective. This is the sequel that I suspect many fans of the original were waiting for. It just happens to be more than 15 years late.

The film charts a very safe course, repeating the same tone and imagery that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez created back in 1999. There is a group of college students. They all obsessively use video cameras to record what they are doing. They get lost in the woods, and some unseen supernatural presence begins to torment them. The extent to which adult viewers are going to enjoy Blair Witch will likely come down to how they react to these deliberate echoes and references. Anyone wanting something unexpected that advances the concept in any significant way will be deeply disappointed. Anyone wanting a 90 minute horror movie with regular and effective scares will likely have a blast. It does not outstay its welcome, and it provides more than enough moments of horror to be an entertaining diversion. For teenage audiences I suspect the film presents a different proposition. There are 18 years olds today who were not even alive when The Blair Witch Project was released. For them this is effectively a new movie, and to Wingard’s credit it can be watched and enjoyed without ever having seen the original.

The cast are essentially unknowns, as seems to be the rule with this franchise. In the main they deliver effective and believable performances. Callie Hernandez seems particularly strong as Lisa, who ultimately seems the closest thing the film has to a main protagonist.

One of the strongest elements of the original film was the manner in which its first half related a bunch of seemingly random pieces of local folklore and history, and in which the second half then played out variations of that folklore as the characters slid deeper and deeper into the Witch’s environment. The same technique is used here, and once again it proves a major strength. It implies an entire supernatural world and history without ever presenting to directly to the audience.

Blair Witch is not going to re-invent a genre, and it is not going to surprise anyone. It is an entertaining and traditional sequel that manages to both avoid making any serious missteps and provide a requisite number of shocks and frights to please its target audience. Ask yourself: do you feel like watching another 90 minutes of The Blair Witch Project? Your answer will tell you all that you need to know about Blair Witch.

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