In 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" forever changed the horror genre. It wasn't just a matter of kick-starting the found footage genre into high gear -- by creating a mystique around the faux-documentary in the early days of Internet, this eerie indie changed the way audiences looked at movies and how studios looked at marketing them. The crowds that packed sold-out shows all opening weekend long raved over a campaign that posited the narrative film as a genuine documentary of an investigation gone horribly, supernaturally awry. By casting unknown actors, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez fed a myth of a lost trio of filmmakers that gained a vivid life of its own before the movie even debuted. All this committed the audience to the characters before they stepped foot in a theater.
17 years later, I still remember the tremors of excitement as I sat in that theater with friends, giddily awaiting this mysterious movie's start. I thrill at the memory of witnessing that finale surrounded by an audience rigid with abject terror. So how, in the wake of such a pioneering legacy, could a sequel possibly compete? Perhaps by catching the internet off-guard once more?
Director Adam Wingard shocked Comic-Con International in San Diego this year when the screening of his new horror offering "The Woods" turned out to be the surprise world premiere of "Blair Witch." Disregarding the critically loathed (and fan forgotten) sequel "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2," the third entry of this freaky franchise follows James (James Allen McCune), who was only four years old when his aspiring documentarian sister Heather (Heather Donahue of the original "Blair Witch Project") went missing in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. Convinced she's still out there, James gathers a band of attractive and hip friends to join him on a wild witch chase. But soon, these comely twenty-somethings find themselves plagued by a spooky sounds mix tape that blares booms, screeches and feedback through the dark forest at every opportunity.
This movie is almost impossibly stupid.
In many ways, Wingard's "Blair Witch" is following the path laid by "The Blair Witch Project." Both are found footage movies set in the witchy woods, peppered with creepy stick symbols, strange sounds, and centered on a recklessly ambitious female documentarian (in this film, played by Callie Hernandez). But while Wingard got these superficial details down, he missed out on the elements that made the original so riveting. Hype aside, Myrick and Sanchez's casting of average looking people gave their horror hit a gritty authenticity from its first frames. Wingard's cast all boast flawless skin, dazzlingly white teeth (which stand out crisply against mud and blood), and wardrobes that make them seem like they just wandered off from an Urban Outfitters shoot. Their beauty is the same Hollywood gloss thickly applied to so many horror remakes/reboots/rewhatevers that makes them inherently laughable despite their amped-up gore.
When it comes to the found footage angle, Wingard tries to avoid the pitfalls of the genre's coverage (or lack thereof) by including earpiece cameras and a drone that offer shot variety, and more close-ups of his heroes than the original did. But again, he misses the power of "The Blair Witch Project." Some of the scariest scenes in the original where we couldn't see the cast, but could only hear their panicked screams, rushed breath, and racing footfalls, as the camera showed us a dark wilderness blazing by in dizzying glimpses. Wingard got the dizzying glimpses down with enough sloppy whip-pans to give you eyestrain. But even with the relentlessly loud and screeching sound design, his cinematography lacks verve, just as his characters lack dimension.
The script by Wingard's recurring collaborator Simon Barrett ("The Guest," "You're Next") puts little to no effort into establishing characters or their motivations. Sure, James is looking for his sister. Peter (Brandon Scott) is his friend, so he'll follow blindly. (When asked if they're afraid of the witch, they'll pause playing video games to shrug comically.) Ashley (Corbin Reid) is Peter's girlfriend, and so an unquestionable plus one. Lisa (Hernandez) has her sights set on making a doc of her own and has a bit of a crush on James, so what better win-win than to follow your mourning could-be beau into a probably haunted wood to look for his definitely dead sister?
Paper-thin motivations and pretty faces are not enough to create engaging characters. And Lisa's ambition doesn't match Heather's. So when the spooked campers decide to bail on this search party, she agrees, killing an in-group conflict that could have made for some of the rich tension the original dolled out in heaps. Instead, these meandering morons decide to leave, but get predictably lost, and then take turns running down dark forest paths screaming as they are chased by loud, loud, very loud noises that have no apparent basis.
You know that jackass uncle who "scares" you by sneaking up behind you and screaming in your ear? That's "Blair Witch"s idea of horror. Blend this with the relentlessly shaky cam aesthetic, performances more wooden than the forest itself and a finale that heavily rips off the original while wedging in tedious horror tropes (soiled dress creepers, bodies ripped out of frame at ridiculous speed, and lazy jump scares of the "I didn't see you there" variety), and you've got not only one of the worst movies of 2016, but one of the worst horror sequels ever made.
Viewed through the lens of the countless imitators that flooded the found footage genre, "The Blair Witch Project" may not hold the same power to terrorize today. But in its time it was a film event that felt fresh, frightening, and essential. "Blair Witch" is a pale imitation, lacking wit, tension or anything resembling scares. But hey, if you thought the original would have been better with a half-assed romance subplot, blowjob jokes and a higher body count, I guess you're the one who asked for this.
"Blair Witch" is now in theaters.