The Blair Witch

Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott Valorie Curry, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson

Director: Adam Wingard

Writer: Simon Barrett

When The Blair Witch Project first came out in 1999, it took the world by storm with its revolutionary found-footage format, authentic low-budget production and dynamic online marketing campaign. I however was seven at the time and didn’t get round to watching the film until I was in university, by which time found-footage had become an established genre and the film itself had become quite dated. The Blair Witch Project is thus a film that I admire more than I like. Although it was far too late for me to fall for the movie’s student documentary disguise, I was able to appreciate how it captured that realistic effect through its non-expert cinematography and non-professional actors. While I wasn’t scared by what occurred, I could understand how effective the format and tone could have been at generating scares back before found-footage became a gimmick. I suppose that, more than anything, was the sequel’s fatal weakness: The Blair Witch Project was a film that could only have worked back when it did. To try and do the same thing again two decades later is self-defeating and futile.

20 years after the disappearance of his sister Heather in her pursuit of the Blair Witch, James (James Allen McCune) has discovered new footage that he believes shows what happened to her. Hoping that she might still be alive, he decides to search for her in the woods where she disappeared with his friends Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid). Every second of this search is captured by Lisa as footage for her documentary. In Burkittsville they meet the locals who originally found and uploaded the lost footage, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), and agree to let them join their search. Together the party ventures into the woods towards the spot where the footage was unearthed, hoping there might be a clue to point them towards James’ sister. It isn’t long before they get lost and start encountering the strange sights and sounds that had haunted Heather and her friends all those years ago.

17 years ago when The Blair Witch Project pioneered found-footage as a format, no one had seen anything like it in cinema. It was such a simple format that pretty much anyone who owned a video camera could adopt it, leading to a long line of imitations. It has been used and misused so many times that it has lost much of that rawness and authenticity that had made it so effective in the first place. This time around in the sequel (which I assume is set in a happier, more idyllic world where Book of Shadows doesn’t exist), the style they use feels less natural and less genuine. The film is clever in the way it incorporates multiple ways of recording footage (including GoPros, iPads and a drone), but the use of these cameras seems more contrived than before. The actors are also a little more recognisable this time around and their performances are more self-conscious and deliberate. The style and structure the film adopts from The Blair Witch Project just doesn’t work as well this time around because it brings too much attention to itself.

Even if the film could have captured the same mood and effect as the original, it still suffers from a lack of restraint that plays an equal part in undermining many of its scares. Whereas the first film built tension through distant yet unsettling sounds, The Blair Witch turns the volume up to eleven. There are too many “Boo!” moments in this film for any real sense of dread and terror to be built. There are some moments that manage to be reasonably scary, one example being a claustrophobic sequence near the end. The movie also manages to convey the same sense of a haunting, ethereal threat by giving the woods a disorienting sense of time that affects the characters. For the most part however the film relies more on shock than it does on horror and is weaker for it.

The Blair Witch Project was a sensation of its time. This is just yet another 90s sequel that wasn’t needed, didn’t bring anything new, and doesn’t merit watching. Even if it could have generated half the hype of its predecessor, the film still doesn’t give the viewer anything that they cannot get from watching the original. It does a passable job as far as imitations go, but an imitation is all it is. It is a film that never tries to be its own as it follows the original’s example beat-by-beat and builds up to a climax that fails to surprise or astonish. Any scares the film is able to attain are momentary and will not linger with any viewer once the credits roll. What The Blair Witch demonstrates more than anything else is that a phenomenon cannot be created twice, a lesson that Gus Van Sant learnt when he made his shot-for-shot remake of Psycho.