Why does it feel like the right time to reintroduce the Blair Witch to the horror genre? I give Lionsgate major props for keeping this film under wraps quite effectively until it was announced at Comic Con this past summer that a film we knew only as “The Woods” was, in fact, a new chapter in the Blair Witch saga. Really, it’s the only way Lionsgate could have done anything close to the surprise the original “Blair Witch Project” gave movie fans in 1999, when a viral marketing campaign made the found-footage thriller into “must-see” cinema by implying that it was a true story. No such surprises could have been possible with this film, so the studio did their own, and the result was an intriguing piece of marketing cleverness that prepped us for another trip into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. The resulting film has a similar structure to the 1999 blockbuster, but is equally effective as a low-budget thriller that uses flashes of images and sounds to hit their audience’s nerves, and continues plucking until you can’t take it anymore.
Credit, also, to Lionsgate for putting the film in the hands of writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard rather than a pair of unknowns. Outside of the genre, however, Barrett and Wingard are unknowns, although if you are just getting familiar with them courtesy of “Blair Witch,” seek out their previous work, namely “A Horrible Way to Die” and “You’re Next,” which showed a bracing intelligence and thoughtful care for storytelling (for the most part) that is important to the way they approach “Blair Witch.” It would have been easy for the studio to say, “Just remake the original with new technology,” but Wingard and Barrett are filmmakers who were inspired by what Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez accomplished in the “The Blair Witch Project,” and find fresh material that establishes a larger mythology of the Blair Witch while building off of what Myrick and Sanchez established in the original. They also wisely act like “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” never existed, which honestly, pretty much everyone who has seen it (myself included) wishes were the case.
The film begins with what appears to be the ending of the original “Blair Witch Project,” but is, in fact, footage a guy in Burkittsville posted on YouTube. It was found in a digital video camera in the woods where Heather, Josh and Mike went searching for the Blair Witch by a local (Lane, played by Wes Robinson), and is being watched by James (James Allen McCune), who is the younger brother of Heather from the first film. He was 4 when she disappeared, and now, as a young adult, he thinks he’s seen her in the footage uploaded by Lane. A friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), is working on a documentary about James, and they are going to Burkittsville with two other friends (Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid)) to meet Lane, and go into the woods and trying to find a trace of Heather, and what may have happened to her. Lane and his girlfriend, Talia (Valorie Curry), decide they want to join them on the larger expedition, and so the six of them head into the woods, with Bluetooth GPS, walkie talkies, and a drone, ready to capture what they can, and try not to repeat the mistakes Heather and co. made. They are not prepared for what they find, however.
After “The Blair Witch Project,” “found-footage” replaced the slasher film’s stranglehold as the genre’s primary style for filmmakers to follow if they wanted to really connect with audiences, although the next film to really maximize that was not until 2007’s “Paranormal Activity.” Since then, it feels like the only type of movie people wanted to make was cheap, with no stars and acting like what they were doing was bringing real stories of terror to life. What most of those films NOT including the original “Paranormal Activity” failed to capture was how primal and instantly identifiable the struggle in the “Blair Witch Project” was. None of them committed to the terror and personal connection with the audience like that film did. To answer my question from the beginning of this review, it feels like the right time for the Blair Witch to come back to horror because honestly, someone needs to show these films how to get it done, and Wingard and Barrett do that with aplomb. If you didn’t like the “shaky cam” of the original, or didn’t find it scary, or felt “The Force Awakens” was just a carbon copy of “A New Hope,” their film is not for you. The truth is, though, this is the only way a new “Blair Witch” movie could get made and be successful, these days, and if you’re thinking, “But, with GPS and modern technology, how could they get lost in the woods like last time?” Human error is always a wild card in life, but more importantly, the supernatural aspect of the Blair Witch is taken to another level. Putting too much faith in technology will get you killed, and one of the most haunting shots is when the hikers send the drone up above the trees to look for a clearing, and an idea of where they are. The images are simple, but a power evocation of the hopelessness of their task. More than that, though, the Blair Witch appears to have some tricks up her sleeve she didn’t have last time, and Wingard sells it effortlessly. The use of sound and shadows and the unseen was a big part of the original film’s success, and while those are still important here, having more than $40,000 at their disposal means much more can be done. There are visual effects and stunts utilized here that were not really available for Myrick and Sanchez in 1999 on their budget, and while that may make the film unnecessarily loud and bombastic for many, it added much to the Blair Witch mythology, and gave me probably the most satisfying “found-footage” experience I’ve had in theatres since our first encounter with the Blair Witch in July of 1999. You won’t get it out of your head.