Here’s the good news about Blair Witch. If you can strip away your expectations associated with its name, it’s a pretty good horror movie. Disregard the legacy of the 1999 smash hit (and its legion of found-footage imitators). Brush aside Adam Wingard’s sequel’s connections to that film. Pretend it’s still just called The Woods, and its homage to the original – à la Willow Creek – and what you’ve got is a well-executed, well-paced addition to the found footage canon, demonstrative of Wingard (and frequent collaborator Simon Barrett)’s knack for harnessing genre conventions. With a good understanding of the necessary rhythms of horror, the pair create a film that’s gripping – my heart was pounding – even if it’s not especially memorable.
The problem, of course, is that Blair Witch does come with those expectations, and they’re expectations that it doesn’t live up to. Those expectations are important: they’re the reason it’s getting a wide release in Australian cinemas, it’s the reason people are talking about it, it’s the reason people are buying tickets (though maybe not as many as the producers might’ve hoped). So it would be disingenuous of me to continue this review by pretending that Blair Witch isn’t called Blair Witch.
Part of the problem of living up to the original Blair Witch Project is the singularity of the film. While its ridiculous financial success might have inspired many imitators, there hasn’t really been another film like it. I’m not just referring to the brilliant marketing strategy – which, in the early days of the internet, managed to convince audiences they were watching actual found footage – but the film itself. The found footage that followed may have mimicked its grainy handheld footage and minimal budgets, but nothing has come close to capturing its frantic edge of authenticity (as described by Mike D’Angelo over at The Dissolve [RIP]). Unless Wingard planned to recreate the production wholesale – by abandoning a crew of amateur actors in the woods with handheld cameras – he was never going to come close.
The approach Wingard and Barrett take is different – but the same. They essentially follow the model of the found footage films that followed The Blair Witch Project – a generally unlikeable crew of young adults are picked off by an escalating terror of some kind, all captured on cameras that are always on with cinematography shaky enough to catch glimpses of said terror but nothing more. Within this framework, the film is, as mentioned, pretty damn good. But “pretty damn good” isn’t good enough in 2016. Not when the found footage genre has been iterated and remixed to the point of irrelevance.
When director Josh Trank took on the format in 2012 with Chronicle, he not only shifted into the burgeoning superhero sub-genre (hey, remember when people tried to make superhero films not based on pre-existing properties?) but explored the idea of seeing through multiple perspectives. That film’s climax – which madly cuts from dash cam to iPhone to CCTV footage in the midst of a raging battle – upped the stakes for what found footage could and should achieve. M. Night Shyamalan offered a more modest experiment in The Visit, which foregrounded the often-elided idea of editing in these “found footage” films. (It’s perhaps the only such film to address who actually put the footage together after the fact, though it’s not technically found footage that’s being shown.) Even the main inheritor to The Blair Witch Project’s success – the Paranormal Activity series – broke out of the box in its latest entry, combining ancient analogue technology with 3D visualisation of its eponymous activity.
Unfortunately, Blair Witch has no such innovation to offer. This is not necessarily a surprise, granted. I’m a big fan of Wingard and Barrett’s output so far – You’re Next, The Guest, their V/H/S 2 segment – but it’s hard to deny that their work isn’t especially original. The pair come from a new generation of indie horror filmmakers whose love for an earlier era of horror/thrillers – especially from the ‘80s – is unmistakable, and their output tends to strip away subtext in interest of recreating the thrills and scares of their youth. So Blair Witch feeling a lot like the midway point between the original film and the last decade of found footage horror is to be expected. Ambiguous noises in the night and fractured social dynamics give way to body horror, monsters with elongated limbs and – in a classic horror cliché – the black guy dying first. That doesn’t make for a bad film, but it does preclude creating the immediacy and authenticity that elevates The Blair Witch Project over its imitators.
To Wingard’s credit, there are some little innovations that keep Blair Witch from being ‘just another found footage film.’ In particular, the opening half hour or so – the weakest section of its predecessor – centres on the labour and technology associated with filmmaking (which helps to distract from the rudimentary character development). Project was filmed with only a pair of cameras – a black-and-white camcorder and a decent, ‘borrowed’, 16mm camera – but Blair Witch expands its scope to include an expensive digital camera, a bunch of ‘earpiece’ cameras and even a camera fitted to a drone (fitting, given seemingly every modern documentary is incomplete without a bit of drone footage).
Fine, the technology has been updated – who cares? What Wingard does, cleverly, is use the diverse range of cameras to emphasis the range of POVs involved (the first film’s trio has doubled to six characters). Early conversations cut back and forth between different characters holding – or using – different cameras, and it’s hard not to watch and marvel at the amount of effort involved in filming a simple conversation on camera. Most movies disguise the work involved in creating their images, but Blair Witch – at least initially – does the opposite.
As in the first film, there’s a range of different camera qualities, which operates as de facto character development. For instance, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) are Burkittsville locals who are leading our heroes (including the younger brother of the first film’s Heather) into the Blair Witch’s woods. They’re far coarser than the city folk, which is reflected in the DV video camera that the couple share – and which makes it immediately clear whose perspective we’re in the early scenes. Or there’s documentarian Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who sets herself apart from the group by lugging around her comparatively unwieldy camera even as shit starts going down.
What’s frustrating is that all these techniques aren’t leveraged into something especially interesting. Oh, sure, the range of cameras allow for various angles on the horror that ensues. When the drone camera gets stuck in a tree, we get to watch a character’s demise from her perspective and from the drone’s. Lisa’s claustrophobic struggle through a muddy tunnel is similarly captured from two angles, as she uses her camera to the light way while allowing the audience to survey her terrified face. But I couldn’t help but wish for more innovation here: wouldn’t it have been great, for example, to suddenly see footage through Lane’s grainy DV camera after he’d disappeared from the scene, without explanation?
That’s a nitpick, of course. But these kind of minor issues are indicative of Blair Witch feels like a disappointment. Maybe in 2006, this kind of deftly-executed sequel would have felt fresh, but in 2016 it feels like the last gasp of an atrophying sub-genre. Found footage isn’t dead yet, but it needs more than Wingard’s technical prowess: it needs new blood.