BLAIR WITCH, or: Lost in the Woods

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BLAIR WITCH (2016). Director: Adam Wingard. Cinematographer: Robby Baumgartner.

It was such a welcome surprise when they announced the new Blair Witch film. But then we actually saw the new Blair Witch film.


RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT can still be counted on to divide audience members, be they casual viewers or die-hard genre fans. People either tend to call it a horror classic or a boring and pointless instigator of motion sickness. I have always been in the former category. I believe THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to be a masterpiece. It’s a film that should never have worked as well as it did. It’s a film I find fascinating as much for the slow, convincing deterioration of the group under pressure as it is for the threat of the unseen and unexplainable presence in the forest. It was always going to divide people, but was always destined to be a cult classic.

An attempt was made almost immediately to film a sequel. BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 has its fans, but I am not one of them. It poses a lot of interesting questions and has an inventive meta take on the material. But everything else, from the terrible characters, to the inane twists, to the catastrophic studio tampering in an attempt to make the film more commercial, worked to the film’s detriment. After a year of hype between the first and second films, BOOK OF SHADOWS was a bomb that seemed to signal a sudden and definite end to the BLAIR WITCH franchise.

Which is why news of the newest film in the franchise took everyone by surprise. Everyone knew that director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett were collaborating on a horror film called THE WOODS, which given their track record was reason enough to be interested. Yet, perhaps because of the low-budget and crowded field, this film was able to shoot in complete secrecy. When it was finally unveiled at San Diego Comic Con, something strange happened. The logo for THE WOODS began to shift and the new final title for the film was announced – BLAIR WITCH. Somehow, a respected horror filmmaker had managed to shoot a follow-up to one of the most controversial films of all-time and keep the whole thing under wraps. By the time it was revealed to the public, the film was already shot, edited and ready to be released just two months later. It was a total shake-up, recalling the brilliant marketing of 1999’s BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. It was also sadly the only exciting thing about the whole mess.

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A film like this only works as well as its conceit. Since BLAIR WITCH insists on following so many of the original film’s beats, comparisons to that film are unavoidable. By its very design, this film could never stand on its own. This extends to the opening which informs us that we are once again watching footage that was found long after this search party had mysteriously disappeared.

James Donahue (James Allen McCune) was still a kid when his sister Heather disappeared in the Black Woods of Burkittsville. Ever since, his family has had to contend not just with the mystery of her disappearance but the hysteria that followed when the footage for her proposed documentary was found and assembled. James has been obsessed with finding her for his entire life. He is sent a link to a digital video reportedly taken in the haunted cabin where we last saw Heather, which leads him to believe she is still alive. This is of course highly unlikely. 17 years have passed without a word and yet he still believes she’s in those same woods? His friends know this is most likely the misguided beliefs of a pained and obsessed young man and yet they agree to help him investigate in a show of moral support. Well, mainly. His friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) just happens to be making a film herself – what a coincidence! – and decides to document the quest to find James’ missing sibling. This quest leads them to two shifty alt-right conspiracy theorists who insist on tagging along as they all venture into the Black Woods to search for the mysterious house seen in the video.

In 1999, they were stuck lugging around a digital camcorder, 16mm movie camera and a DAT recorder. It made for a dangerous trek and yet their resources were minimal. Technology has changed a lot since then and Lisa has thought of every contingency to ensure they will be safe in the woods – and able to get every square inch of coverage of course. Everyone is fitted with earpiece cameras so they don’t have to carry anything. She’s also brought a digital camera of her own, walkie talkies for everyone, remote security cameras, a GPS tracking system and even a drone. None of which helps of course. Once night falls, time and space seem to shift and whatever evil spirits are in the woods start picking off members of the group.

Any updated version of this story would need to reflect the technological advances that have been made in past 17 years. But when your arsenal can cover literally every inch at any time, it ruins the suspense. One of the cameras doesn’t work? Look through one of the other functioning cameras lying around. And the more cameras that are available, the easier it is to cut from person to person, especially since each character is wearing a camera of their own. There is so much cutting during dialogue scenes, it barely seems like a found footage film. Instead, we are stuck in the woods with these people who are all sporting state of the art equipment, some of which works and some of which doesn’t.

Which is another problem altogether. In the original film, the hardware continued to function throughout the film, often outliving the characters themselves. But here, the Blair Witch seems to be destroying some of the equipment. Not all of it mind you, only the items that might aid our group and give the writer an easy out. In other words, this ancient evil force instinctively knows the inner workings of every gadget our crew brings with them. It knows that headsets are fine but that drones or GPS might spoil some sort of surprise, thus suggesting this malevolent force keeps up on modern day security tech.

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What separated THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT from other horror films of its time wasn’t just that it was different, it’s that it was convincing. This is a film in which a vocal percentage of the public was actually upset when they found out it wasn’t real (This is incidentally a group I will never fully understand.). And you can’t just chalk this up to the idea that it was made in a more innocent and less internet savvy time. The characters in BLAIR WITCH PROJECT felt like real people. It felt like they were reacting genuinely to a dire situation that grew less logical and more terrifying as time wore on. What we were seeing felt like found footage. Despite other similar films coming before, that was the film that originated the term. Last but not least, the finished product looked like someone tried to assemble a historical record of the group’s final days, full of mystery and terror, but also maintaining a sense of mournful respect to the people at the heart of it.

The finished product of 2016’s BLAIR WITCH on the other hand looks like someone was trying to make a crassly exploitative horror movie. Wingard’s eerie ambient soundtrack plays underneath what we are seeing. The original you’ll recall had no soundtrack (Why would it?) and comparing the two, that was clearly the better choice. Digital noise, with its abrupt clicks, pops and bursts of static, are all meant to unsettle the audience but were obviously added in post. There are frequent, disjointed cuts, seemingly made without purpose. The false scare of friends jumping up on one another, one of the oldest cliches in the horror handbook, is utilized countless times.

Worse yet is that they have taken the most notorious and enduring quality of the original – the fear of the unknown – and trampled all over it. Back in 1999, Heather Donahue ran through the woods and screamed, “What the fuck is that?” with such a high-pitched, terrified voice that we could barely imagine the horror she had glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. Here, the trees themselves attack, on-camera. We also see monsters – yes, plural – and what appears to be images of the Blair Witch herself. The one great mystery from 1999 is a mystery no more. All of this is shown in split-second shots that don’t evoke mystery or disorientation so much as the terrible MTV-inspired horror films released in the mid-90s, the same films from which THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT served as a welcome relief. But the worst is yet to come.

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When we were introduced to Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, we believed in them. Most of us, particularly if you lived in the middle of the country, knew people exactly like them. Because of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s hands-off, unscripted approach, there wasn’t a single moment that felt contrived. The reason why some were surprised to find out they were just actors was they didn’t seem like it. They seemed like real people that your might have grown up, gone to school or worked with.

They never seemed like actors and the group in the new BLAIR WITCH never seems like anything but. This time out, they don’t use their own names and follow Barett’s script. And because it’s a pretty lousy script, they never manage to be convincing. All of them are photogenic, no unflattering confessionals here as even the blood, sweat and tears seem cosmetically placed. They are as bland as can be and when you combine boring characters with a predictable and far-too-flashy script, it means there isn’t a moment of suspense throughout the 89 minute running time. We never get any real sense of danger, even when the situation is hopeless. And because we don’t have anyone interesting to root for, we don’t really care what happens anyway.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT helped start the craze of found footage films. Wingard’s BLAIR WITCH will probably kill it. Any plans to build a franchise from here on out are dead in the water. And if this is how they are treating the property, I say good riddance. Say what you will about BOOK OF SHADOWS, but at least that film tried to do something different. Wingard seems content to repeat several of the original’s same beats without having a clue about what made the original so special in the first place. The producers behind BLAIR WITCH were handed a jewel with which they could have explored some of the rich mythology only hinted at earlier. Instead, they took the safest route possible, swapping mystery and originality for cheap scares and a by-the-numbers approach. They made a safe, cynical, terrible film and they deserve this failure.  Awful.

Scott W. Davis

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