I’m probably not the only person on Earth to wonder why someone thought it would be a great idea to make another sequel to seminal horror movie The Blair Witch Project, especially given that 1/ the original movie was 17 years old when this sequel was released, and 2/ Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was a bad movie rushed to capitalize on the success of the original, and failed badly both critically and commercially. As of me writing this (January 8, 2017), Blair Witch has a worldwide gross of $45M on a $5M budget, making it more successful than Book of Shadows on paper, but the harsh reality is that in terms of present value of money, and ticket prices outstripping inflation, Blair Witch took in far less money from the public. It may have made a decent profit, but it failed to catch the attention of the public at large.
Like Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King, I am a huge fan of the original – indeed, I’d say that it’s my favourite horror movie. I admit that part of my high regard for it is that when I saw it, it was opening weekend at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis, an old cinema. The place was packed, and the audience was terrific. Sometimes you get lucky enough to sit among people who are all sharing the same experience, and that the assholes who ruin movies are few and far between. It was a great viewing, and I came away from The Blair Witch Project stunned by what I’d just seen. It didn’t – and doesn’t – bother me that the movie has its detractors, because I find the criticisms of “I hated the characters” and “the moving camera made me sick!” as both banal and somewhat childish.
I’m totally onboard with the criticisms of Book of Shadows, however. As a stand alone movie, I liked the idea of a sinister force possessing people to perform horrible acts, then leaving them to take the blame – it’s a great horror concept. Unfortunately, tying Book of Shadows to Blair Witch was ill-conceived. Thematically and stylistically, the sequel feels too distanced from the original, which really is one of those movies that doesn’t particularly need a follow up. But if someone was going to make a sequel, at least the basic premise of Blair Witch – the adult brother of Heather Donahue wants to find out what became of her – provides a reasonable connectivity. The trouble is, there’s just not enough there to justify the movie.
Upon seeing a video purportedly to be connected to the disappearance of his sister, James Donahue (James Allen McCune) contacts the person who found it, and arranges to meet him as part of a group effort to find out his sister’s fate. Continuing the original’s found footage technique, everyone is hooked up with personal recording devices, and a drone is brought into the mix. For me, this exhibits a lack of understanding of the current state of movies. Found footage has had its time, and is now mostly seen as a cheap gimmick. In simply trying to replicate a style, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (both worked on You’re Next) miss a chance to make the movie their own. It’s too bad, because the movie is mostly well paced and directed, though I’ll temper that by saying the writing is bland. The characters are all decently written, but nobody stands out here. For about half of its running time, there are just too many characters onscreen doing very little other than talking. One character gets injured, but there is just not enough going on with so many characters. The movie never has the luxury of being able to fully develop its characters, something that wasn’t an issue with the original movie’s narrative.
When all the stuff you’re waiting for finally gets going, it’s a relief to be able to concentrate on the spooky stuff instead of trying to find something in the characters worth caring about, and this stuff, while familiar, is effective enough. The crashing sounds in the darkness of the forest, the weird animal noises, all that stuff works. One of the big criticisms of The Blair Witch Project was the “whining” of the three characters. I didn’t feel it was whining at all. I thought the movie portrayed the predicament of being lost in an unforgiving, remote location very well. We’re all so used to being able to walk or drive down our streets, being among people when we choose, but when loneliness and despair settles into the back of your mind, frustration turns into uncertainty, then fear. I think we all have stories like that. For me, about five years ago, my wife and I took an exit from a very familiar stretch of highway (380, in Iowa) because we could see an accident had blocked the highway ahead. We drove into a small town hoping to bypass the accident. As it turned out, the path took us through narrow roads that wound through a desolate looking farm, much like what you would see in a horror movie, and while I knew that we were less than a mile from the actual highway, the lack of anyone around, with only muddy pig pens and rotting, collapsing barns, made me uneasy. Minutes later, when we could see the highway up ahead, the relief was palpable. So yeah, I was in tune with The Blair Witch Project’s narrative.
Because this movie splits its narrative between so many characters, the same effect in Blair Witch is diluted badly until after the midpoint, where the plot takes the well trodden “Ten Little Murder Victims” path, reducing the cast to a more manageable, effective number. After that, we go into Act 3 with only a couple of characters remaining, which is better than what’s come before, but also here that Wingard and Bennett break with the narrative and the movie becomes a mostly conventional found footage horror movie, providing the audience with cheap jump scares and moving from the implied to the literal in terms of the Blair Witch legend. Up to that point I wasn’t really disappointed with the movie. It was decent enough while not being anything great. Even in Act 3, I liked the setting: creepy woods at night during a rainstorm, creepy abandoned house in the middle of the woods – yep, I’m into that. Trouble is, you spend all that time through two acts of a movie, you’re looking for an exciting, relatively quick Act 3, but Wingard and Bennett create a poorly paced, visually repetitive final act that plays less like a movie and more like a video game walkthrough of a creepy house. If this floats your boat, you should play through the current downloadable demo of Resident Evil 7, a much creepier experience.
A decent movie that I might have enjoyed better if The Blair Witch Project had never happened.