Somehow Lionsgate has put one of the most influential horror franchises in film history into the hands of two of our most promising and exciting young filmmakers without anyone knowing. Blair Witch, as the film is now called. It was originally promoted as The Woods, was directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett. They’re the team behind the underrated genre films You’re Next and The Guest, and now they’ve created a sequel that in my opinion both pays tribute to the original but also elevates it in ways that only 17 years of space could allow.
The premise is that 15 years after the original Blair Witch Project was released, a new batch of footage was found. This footage shows Heather’s (the girl from the original) brother finding a video on YouTube, which he believes, shows his sister still alive in the woods. He then recruits his friends to head out and find her. Things do not go well.
Now that we have all of that out of the way, we’ll cut right to the chase: Wingard and Barrett’s Blair Witch isn’t a bad movie, in fact it’s likely exactly what they – and Lionsgate – wanted it to be. But that’s also part of its problem. It feels totally safe. Love it or hate it, Joe Berlinger’s troubled first sequel, 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was not safe. It was an unconventional, bold and self-referential horror film that used the original found footage landmark as its springboard, playing more like a genre-fied exploration of the themes.
Now while the second film in the franchise, Blair Witch: Book of Shadows, isn’t exactly ignored, it’s not referenced either. This is a film that tells a direct follow-up to the first film. And to do so, the long passage of time is completely necessary. It allows a younger brother to grow up and, more importantly, allows technology to reach a place where Wingard can do very different things with his cameras. Mainly, the film is shown though ear cameras (basically Bluetooth headsets with cameras on them), drone footage, and a super HD SLR. It all looks very clean, and mostly plausible.
From there, Blair Witch takes some time to set up the story, characters, and a mythology expanded from the first film before it gets into real scare territory. Once it does, though, the scares gradually increase in intensity leading to an edge-of-your-seat finale that will have you watching through your fingers. It’s a legitimately terrifying film.
One problem with Blair Witch is that the film’s mythology is more interesting than the characters. Most of the characters in the film don’t have much of an arc. They’re there to serve their role in the film: joker, skeptic, cameraperson, etc., but not much else. There’s also a wealth of sound-jacked jump scares, the kind that the post The Conjuring-crowd seems to love so much. But these more explicit additions really just further exemplify how powerful the original was by using and showing so very little.
And on that note, if we are to suspend our disbelief… who cut this thing? Who did the post sound mix? The opening credits of the film state – like the original – that this footage was found in the woods. And yet the film is totally over-produced. The lines between real and fabricated aren’t blurred this time around, they’re cut completely clear.
Thankfully, the mythology is a treasure trove if you’re into that sort of thing. Barrett’s script takes so many intriguing but underdeveloped moments from the original film and gives them a fresh, scary context. Nothing is explained per say, but things are given a nice expansion. There are even some potential sci-fi strands that, upon my first viewing, I don’t quite understand—but that doesn’t make them any less interesting. The final 20 minutes is grueling; a surreal and claustrophobic smack down with characters running in a cursed cabin and all manner of phantasmagoria popping up to plague them. It’s scary. And there’s also a novel idea here that the Blair Witch has the power to bend time and space, with some characters claiming they’ve wandered the woods for days while other feeling the passing of mere hours. Shame they didn’t explore that more because it’s an effectively upsetting concept.
Not everything works, not everything is explained (as it rightfully shouldn’t), and several things–like why the characters seemingly sleep with cameras on their faces–are just completely ignored. Nevertheless, the way the film expands the Blair Witch mythology in a way that’s entertaining and also incredibly scary is just too good to ignore. This is the Blair Witch movie fans have been waiting on for years. It will hopefully make lots of money, and there’s no doubt Lionsgate wants it to continue the franchise that Book of Shadows all but obliterated. So expect many more Blair Witch adventures to come. Hopefully the next one tries to break a few more rules.