BLAIR WITCH (2016)
Directed by Adam Wingard
Since the web went into meltdown, over discovering Adam Wingard’s ‘shit your pants horror’ The Woods was a return to Burkittsville, I’ve been apprehensive about seeing it. Despite the sway his name holds among fans of scary film, I’ve found his back catalogue boring (A Horrible Way To Die), style over substance (The Guest), or overly reliant on humour (You’re Next). Still, his work on VHS showed he could do found footage with a refreshing raw energy. And importantly, from watching him talk, he doesn’t seem the kind of guy to bring a genre classic back from the dead without having a vision for it. This last point’s particularly important to me. When I was a lad of 13 my local Picturehouse (The Cameo in Edinburgh) was relaxed about little things like ID. As such, I’m old enough to have seen The Blair Witch Project at the cinema. And quite honestly, I don’t know that I’ve ever been as scared in a screen as I was during the final 20 minutes. Along with The Shining it was one of my introductions to horror. Now, a man in his fourth decade, I’m harder to impress. But then it can’t be worse than Book of Shadows, right?
‘Course not – Berlinger’s second-rate sequel doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as this new one, which sidesteps it entirely. Picking up the story from the first, but 20 years later, Blair Witch sees unhappy camper Heather’s brother James (McCune) set off to find her. With him are his filmmaker friend/ love interest Lisa (Hernandez), plus best buddy Peter (Scott) and his partner Ashley (Reid). Unwillingly enlisting the help of suspicious witch-obsessed locals Lane (Robinson) and Talia (Curry) along the way, they head to The Black Hills Forest. They should be safe right? They got all the latest tech: modern headsets, mobiles, sat navs and even a drone. Unfortunately the latest gadgets are no match for an ancient curse. Before too long the group are walking round in circles, running with shaky cams in the dark and coming stacks of stones and lines of stickmen.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds a lot like the original. But it isn’t. Thankfully Wingard has gone down the Halloween 2 route of keeping true to the iconography of the first while ditching its slow burn for a more aggressive approach. The result is an unmistakably Blair Witch experience, without retreading the same tired grounds. Sure the premise is similar, and there’s plenty nods for the fans. But after after the opening 30 minutes, which do a commendable job building up the atmosphere and sense of location, the smart set pieces and scares come one after the other. There’s a relentless punk-rock violence about the film, with an intensity that rarely lets off once it starts. Cue lots of action this time around, with sustained periods of terror watching like a series of hard punches to the gut. And it’s not just the visceral nature that’s changed either – the witch has got nasty new tricks up her sleeve, like throwing tents in the air, messing with people’s perception of time and literally getting under their skin. Iits not all explained by a still austere mythology. Though it does mean there’s minimal repetition and no endless arguments about where the damn map went. Speaking of which, while I was skeptical about the use of a drone it’s used to great effect in both establishing the no way out scenario and leading to a very memorable sequence high in the trees.
None of this prepares viewers for a final half hour, which visits a familiar location but unexpectedly trumps its source material for sheer balls to the walls frights. It’s bigger in both thrills and budget, allowing for nightmarish visuals, eerie lighting and frantic edits. Again, you don’t necessarily see or understand everything – but man, is it powerful. Though those with even remote claustrophobic would do well to sit this one out: one part throws a characters deep into the earth. Much of the prolonged suspense is helped by an incredible sound design, with well-timed bursts of otherwise innocent audio providing regular jumps – be it static or animal cries. It’s a little cheap, as the characters even comment, but when done this well it’s hard not to like it. Then, in later sections, the increasingly supernatural sounds give the sort of full body jolts fans in their 30’s may have long since stopped getting. Legitimately, for the last half hour I can’t think of many times I’ve felt that way in a cinema seat since that late afternoon in 1999.
Unfortunately some of the impact gets diminished by a script more concerned with scaring than caring, written by regular collaborator Simon Barrett. Though the cast are watchable enough (in particular Robinson), and have an easy chemistry about them, the constant foot on the accelerator narrative means there’s almost no arcs to speak of. James’ relationship to Heather may be the thing that joins the films, yet aside from offering context it adds almost nothing to it: a waste of a potentially interesting premise. Part of this comes from the vagueness with which the script treats the footage from 1994 (assuming James and his friends saw it they wouldn’t be so scathing of the legends). But it’s mostly because there’s so few scenes that try to give the characters internal lives, or cope with the grief of growing up with a sister presumed dead. Subsequently there’s little of the emotional stakes a rounded movie needs. And worse yet, when it comes a big decision in the last third it watches like something done for plot convenience rather than being the next logical beat in the heroes’ journey. After a while, as much as the audience, the characters come across like passengers on a ghost train. Still, lucky it’s a hell of a ride.
Sounds trite, but in 2011 I remember walking out Scream 4 and a friend of a friend, a few years older than the rest of us, said he’d waited 15 years for that sequel. Now I sort of get that. Based on its impact alone it’d be naïve to expect Blair Witch could achieve the greatness of the original. Yet by capturing its feel better than any film since, while being a great horror in its own right, it comes surprisingly close. It may sound backhanded, but it’s as good as you could reasonably expect a sequel to The Blair Witch Project made in 2016 to be, and then some. Even if you can’t be bothered with another found footage, and by now I appreciate many can’t, if you liked the first I reckon this more than warrants a trip back to the woods. Now here’s hoping we get a period horror prequel next.