Review: Blair Witch

All photos courtesy of Lionsgate

Blair Witch, 2016
Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Simon Barrett
Distributed by Lionsgate
Last September, select moviegoers were more than a little surprised to learn that The Woods, a found footage horror movie premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, was in fact a stealth sequel to the landmark film The Blair Witch Project. Briefly (and somewhat confusingly) titled Blair Witch, it picks up over a decade and a half after the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of student filmmakers Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard deep in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland. It's actually the second sequel, with 2000's Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 being a non-found footage cash-in so bad and unlike the original that most people reading this have forgotten it, if they even heard of it in the first place.
I finally got around to watching the new Blair Witch a couple days ago and to sum things up really quickly, I wasn't a fan. I am, of course, absolutely biased here. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's The Blair Witch Project is the scariest movie I've ever seen and one of my favourite films in any genre. So my standards are high, to say the least. But I don't think the Blair Witch sequel is a bad movie, just really misguided, and in fact I even want to give its few shining moments their propers when I get around to discussing them. So without further ado, and knowing that I am NOT going to shy away from spoilers, let's dig in.

Less than 10 minutes in, the first thought to trouble me was There's too many characters. Six, in fact, and while that might seem small for most movies, horror is a different kind of beast that often requires a laser focus to maintain paranoia and suspense. The first movie's trinity of Heather, Mike and Josh allowed relationships and power dynamics to form and evolve naturally, without slotting any of them neatly into any category. With this newer film, I was immediately too aware of these characters as Capital C "Characters": here's the driven idealist, here's the skeptic, here are the suspicious locals, etc.

The dialogue is also very forgettable, which is shocking considering that a lot of it is lore and exposition pertaining directly to the events happening on screen. Admittedly, I zoned out of more than one conversation, but I never felt lost because very little of what's said reveals much about who these people are and what motivates them. If you get more out of plot than I do (which is likely, as I'm all about characterization), this might be to your benefit, but to me it only made the characters feel like ciphers, first draft placeholders poised to be killed off before even the first revision.

Also, hey, Adam Wingard? Maybe don't kill the black dude first? That's like one of the oldest and worst horror clichés in the book, and it hurts even more here because Brandon Scott's character Peter is the only one who has any sense. Come on, dude. 

Then there's the matter of its pace. New Blair Witch is 89 minutes long and starts going full tilt less than halfway through, never taking its foot off the gas. Things keep getting worse and, relative to the first movie, much louder, but there's so little variation in pacing during the back half that it's all adrenaline and none of the dull, overwhelming hopelessness that would help its potentially terrifying moments stick out in relief. Even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which devotes a significant stretch of the movie to Sally being chased by a chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, allows for the breather scene in the gas station near the end so the ensuing dinner sequence has all the more impact. I just don't get the impression these filmmakers understand the importance of slowing things down, if only just to build tension.

By comparison, the original Blair Witch Project is 81 minutes long, shorter than the average high school class, but it's not a quick movie. At max, less than 15 of those minutes could be considered fast-paced action, with most of its running time devoted to idle conversation, haunting scenery and the occasional, uncomfortably real argument. The first "weird" event—the sound of twigs and branches snapping outside the trio's tent on the second night—doesn't occur until roughly a third of the way through the movie and even then it's ambiguous enough that it could very well be a small animal scrambling through the dark underbrush. By the time things really get scary, with (possible?) laughing ghost children attacking their tent, the movie's already halfway through and our hapless film students are too deep into the woods to get themselves out of this mess. Consequently, you get these neat if despondent little moments in the last third of the film where the characters are so lost and so overwhelmed they just sit down, crack some dumb jokes, and quietly comfort each other. The pacing allows the characters enough time to be human.
Perhaps the most fundamental misunderstanding of the source material comes down to the titular Witch itself. If you haven't seen the first Blair Witch Project, "Blair Witch" is a bit of a misnomer. While Heather, Mike and Josh stumble across ostensibly pagan stick figures and stone cairns during their final days in the Black Hills Forest, there's nothing to indicate that the thing stalking them is a witch or even has a tangible form. Local historian/weirdo Mary Brown says she once saw a fur-covered woman out by the woods; a curmudgeonly fisherman describes a mass of white mist taking shape near the river's edge; and Heather maybe sees something—her screeched "WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT? WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!?" gives me goosebumps even as I type it—but by the time the credits roll, we the audience haven't seen anything. If we're left with any impression, it's of less an entity than a force. Like dark matter, we can't observe the Blair Witch directly, only its effects, though it does give off an indisputable vibe of sheer, inhuman malice; I prefer to think of it as a small patch of space and time gone rotten in Appalachia. 

So when we actually see a definite something in the final act of the new Blair Witch, it's a let-down. It's not that the creature design is bad—actually, it's rather unsettling, and I might have loved it in a different movie—but it tries to put a name and face to something that works better without either.

(Post-release, writer Simon Barrett said the thing you see near the end isn't actually the Blair Witch but one of its victims, however as there's nothing to indicate as such in the movie itself I'm guessing this was an authorial backpedal following negative fan reception.)

Also bugging me is how the new movie establishes certain rules for previously inexplicable phenomena. For example: the stick figures aren't just creepy wards but straight-up voodoo dolls, as evidenced when snapping one in half swiftly does the same to a nearby character. It's a great scare, and watching it I actually exclaimed "Oh, shit!" out loud, but again, it deserves to be in another movie whose aims and approach are different from The Blair Witch Project, where so much of the building terror is from its characters not having the first clue what is going on or how it all connects. There's no moment in the first movie where the trio sits down and tries piecing together all the details because they're too scared, angry at each other and/or absolutely exhausted to have the time for exposition. There are hints, insinuations, and in-universe folklore, but it's left to the audience to figure out where X Weird Thing fits in relation to Y Scary Thing. The Blair Witch sequel, on the other hand, makes its predecessor's subtext of time travel and spatial loops explicit and introduces the conceit of the Witch killing only those who look directly at her in literally the last five minutes of the movie.
It's not that establishing rules for your supernatural phenomena is bad, and in fact it can be a good creative tool that keeps you consistent even if you don't plan on showing your hand. After reading Mark Frost's novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks I'm absolutely convinced that he and David Lynch have an explanation for Twin Peaks' Weird Americana mythology written down in an encrypted Google Doc somewhere, in only to keep themselves on track. But Lynch and Frost also know and respect the power of mystery, preferring to let their audience puzzle things out without providing a Word of God explanation. I get the impression that Blair Witch's filmmakers don't have as much faith in their viewers.

All these little irksome things—the clear character types, the physical creature, the rules and causalities the filmmakers put forward—make for a movie that feels way too constructed. I won't pretend that the first flick has some avant garde anti-plot, but like most great films it feels natural and authentic enough that you don't notice, seeing the forest instead of the trees. By comparison, the sequel is like driving by a tract of young, neatly arranged pines just off the highway: it'll be a rich stretch of woods someday, full of character and life, but for now you only see how manmade it is. And yes I realize these forest/woods metaphors are trite given the subject matter but I'm not going to apologize.
The tragedy of Blair Witch isn't that it ruins the original or any such nonsense—hell, Jaws had three sequels, each worst than the last, and that first movie is still rightly regarded as a classic. What's disappointing is that if Blair Witch had just been the movie it was deceptively advertised as, The Woods, it could have gone down as an above-average, maybe even good found footage flick with some solid scares and admittedly horrifying imagery. But by positioning itself as a sequel to the seminal found footage movie—one whose terror is dependent on its absolute refusal to explain its mysteries—it's set up to fail.
Blair Witch also feels like a genuine step down for director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. Their breakout collaboration You're Next was not only a solid modern slasher but a sly deconstruction of the subgenre that didn't resort to knowing self-referential gags like the Scream franchise. And their short for V/H/S/2, "Phase I Clinical Trials," actually wrung a few good gags and scares out of the found footage conceit. Blair Witch, on the other hand, is not only played completely straight but doesn't attempt to subvert any of the tropes that have amassed within the subgenre since 1999.
Now I'm thinking of an alternate universe where Blair Witch is just The Woods, where Wingard and Barrett aren't bound to the original movie's tone and lore and can have some fun with the tropes they're using. Imagine the same characters and same chain of events, down to the two locals admitting they were faking some of the scares, only for it to be revealed 3/4ths of the way through the movie that everybody was in on the gag, trying to make an "authentic" found footage flick in-universe. Even before the twist, the audience could witness little moments where the facade slips and characters do and say things out of character because these are in fact diagetic performances. And by the time they deliberately show their hand or the audience figure things out, actual scary, unexplainable things are afoot and it's too late for anyone to escape—very Boy Who Cried Wolf, except there's nobody to cry to.

Blair Witch misuses the talents of the people involved and fundamentally fails to understand what made the 1999 film not only a blockbuster but a cultural force that would spawn an entire mode of horror. It will not by any means be the final found footage movie, and I predict that in the next few years we'll see a subversive mockumentary that does for this subgenre what You're Next did for slashers. But for all intents and purposes, Blair Witch is a bookend to what The Blair Witch Project began: what was once fresh, novel and genuinely terrifying is now clichéd and trod upon so frequently that it's the kind of beaten path the original film both metaphorically and quite literally avoided.
Here's hoping that if someone else stumbles across lost footage in the Black Hills Forest, they wisely choose to leave it buried. At least for now.

1 comment:

Don Dimanlig said...

ah yes, it is hard to follow up such an iconic classic.
there is the balance between sticking with the original theme // coming up with something fresh. I already picture what u mean but I should watch it first too.

I agree with things becoming better if it had not shared the same title as what it was following. Prometheus was a stealth prequel of Alien, I think when they do stealth stuff, it also means they know the risk. and can always be this safe thing where they dont connect it to the original/original series.

I can say the same for Silent Hill. The 2 movies have high quality visuals, with the first one way clearer and cleaner than the 2nd. But again, it is confused between trying to go for atmosphere, and FORGETTING / not trusting its audience by giving them such an obviously structured movie.

SH movie captures the 1st game atmosphere and camera angles perfectly in its first half, and then changes the pace, scare tactic, and amount of characters that i went from YAAAAY to BOOOOO.

I imagine this is how you felt in BlairWitch3

ah well