Saturday, September 17, 2016

Into the Woods: BLAIR WITCH


Perhaps there’s no good way to make a satisfying follow up to The Blair Witch Project. The 1999 found-footage horror phenomenon, the first mainstream effort to effectively use what would become a formula, is simply suis generis and unrepeatable. Maybe it’s because when it comes to found footage horror, the less we know the better. The secret to a great entry in this subgenre is leaving space for an audience to freak itself out. That’s why Blair Witch Project is mostly three young people on a bad camping trip, and why Paranormal Activity is mostly empty rooms. These films set a tone, generate a spooky mystery, and populate the low-res photography with believable characters, then let enough creepiness sneak in around the edges until the audience is leaning into the frame, studying every little clue, reading horror into every image well before the big payoffs. So when sequels try to pile on explanations and lore, the simple, primal, rough-hewn and unshakable scares of the original can’t be recaptured.

Filmmakers have already tried doing an unconventional Project sequel. That’d be 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which dropped the found-footage aesthetic in favor of a standard late-90’s post-Scream self-aware teen slasher with characters who were fans of the first film convinced it was a real documentary. There’s something half-clever, half-irritating about that film, and nothing scary. Now, 16 years later, the rights holders have doubled back to the property to try a more conventional sequel this time. Called simply Blair Witch, the movie follows James (James Allen McCune), the much younger brother of the first film’s Heather. Now grown, he’s embarking on an expedition into the cursed woods to look for clues that he hopes will explain his sister’s disappearance. Tagging along on this cold case hunt are his best friend (Brandon Scott) and two film students (Callie Hernandez and Corbin Reid) intent on documenting every step of the way. The growth in cheap camera tech over the last decade and a half means the film isn’t quite as scrappy and cheap, or as limited in its coverage, as the original. But more isn’t always better.

Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, the same team behind bad slasher worship You’re Next and enjoyable Carpenter-inspired mystery/actioner The Guest, turn their horror recycling to recreating the sensations of the original Blair Witch. In the process it becomes one of those sequels that also function as a remake. The broad strokes are similar. A group goes into the woods, hears mysterious noises and sees ominous symbols (the sticks and rocks still have a haunted shiver), growing increasingly frightened and lost as they devolve into bickering and paranoia. Then it gets even weirder. This one plays out with a larger cast including a creepy couple of Blair Witch fans (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) who beg to come along, their older, cheaper camera setting their footage apart from our main crew’s more professional ear-mounted HD cams and fancy drone. There’s more cutting and more to see, and more interpersonal dynamics at play – the skeptics and the true believers, with sublimated attractions and irritations bubbling up at inopportune times.

As the night grows unnaturally long, the movie’s pale imitation gives over to its worst impulses. It becomes just another found footage movie with blurry headache-inducing visual vomit as characters run and scream and pant. Their panic becomes our confusion. As all sense of time and direction finally goes out the window for these characters who are injured – glimpses of gore are another aspect unproductively amped up here – and separated with failing flashlights, the movie becomes an assemblage of random flashes through which you can squint and almost make out the clichéd climax gushing forth. At a certain point it becomes nothing but characters aimlessly running around in the dark shouting each other’s names between jumpy jolts, claustrophobic scrambling, and obligatory homage to the original film’s most memorable moments. Deliberately conjuring reminders of the intense sensation Project was make this Blair Witch all the more disappointing. There was a real original. This is simply forgettable and derivative, technically competent but unable to scare up anything truly frightening.

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