“Blair Witch” Super-Sizes the Terror

“Blair Witch” Super-Sizes the Terror

The Blair Witch Project (1999) remains a beacon for independent filmmakers: a movie that demonstrates it’s possible to outdo 99% of the studio films in your genre with nothing more than a microscopic budget and a good idea.

The quintessential product of the “found footage” genre, it also presaged a coming era in the way we create and consume video. Not only are aspiring filmmakers empowered with affordable tools, almost every one of us now carries a portable movie studio as a matter of routine. The entire world has become a found-footage movie.

In the late ’90s the concept was still new enough — and filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were audacious enough — that the promotional campaign for The Blair Witch Project (the first successful movie promotion based primarily on Internet dissemination) left many first-time viewers with seeds of doubt. Was the footage real?

That cat’s certainly out of the bag, and the guys behind the new sequel Blair Witch wisely doesn’t try to follow too closely in the steps of the original — thus avoiding the Ghostbusters uncanny valley. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have previously collaborated on projects including the found-footage anthology V/H/S, and they’ve crafted a much more conventional horror film that succeeds on its own terms.

A bare description of Blair Witch could be pitched as hyperbole — “Ten times the budget, ten times the cameras! Double the cast size, double the mayhem!” — and much of the movie feels like a theme-park ride inspired by the first film. It delivers the frights as well as most other scary movies, and it benefits from the franchise’s suggest-don’t-show aesthetic.

Wingard and Barrett even have several clever ideas, though none of them are developed very far as the film devolves into woodland mayhem. One of the most promising is introducing the alt-right — in 2016, what could be scarier?

James (James Allen McCune) is the younger brother of Heather, the young woman who went missing in the original film. He decides to go looking for her, and his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) follows him to chronicle the quest for a documentary class she’s taking. They’re accompanied by two more friends, Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott).

Peter and Ashley are black, which underlines the group’s discomfort when they show up at the house of Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), two rural Maryland locals who claim to have found the house where Heather was last documented — and who proudly display a Confederate flag.

Lane and Talia demand to be taken along into the woods, where the obvious questions start to crop up. What are their motives? Can they be trusted? Could they just be making this all up?

There are a lot of places Blair Witch could have gone with that — as well as with ideas including ear-mounted cameras, an ill-timed accident, and the house itself, which we get to see much (much, much) more of this time around.

Ultimately, though, Wingard and Barrett are genre filmmakers who deliver a genre film: the kind of movie where characters who just want to get each other’s attention do so not by saying “Hey” or tapping a shoulder but by tackling each other out of nowhere. It makes for a very jumpy experience, and a very well-crafted one.

You’re not going to get bored, with characters trying to escape via trees, tunnels, and tents. We also learn a lot of Blair Witch backstory, which fortunately isn’t labored over but works the way it’s intended: to amplify the creepiness when we finally have a close encounter with the eponymous hag herself.

Blair Witch is worth seeing if you’re looking to spend some quality time with things that goes bump (and crash, and screech) in the night this Halloween season. Still, it’s just another reminder of how good the original was.

Hernandez staring silently into the camera, panting with terror as her soaked-but-still-sexy curls hang over her eyes, is a memorable image, but it’s not nearly as poignant as the original film’s instantly iconic shot of Heather Donahue looking into the bright camera light, her face mostly out of frame, tearfully saying goodbye to her loved ones.

The Blair Witch Project understood an essential truth that its amped-up sequel tends to forget: when you go out into the fearsome forest, the terror doesn’t come from what you find, it comes from what you’ve left behind.

Jay Gabler