In October of 1994, filmmakers Heather Donohue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams disappeared in the woods around Burkittsville, Maryland while making a student film about the Blair Witch legend. I’m sure you all remember this incident; the footage was later recovered and cynically compiled by Artisan Entertainment as the memorable 1999 cult film The Blair Witch Project. Artisan is no more, having been acquired in 2003 by “mini-major” Lionsgate, who had a stroke of fortune this year when they discovered that, as chance would have it, Donohue’s much younger brother James also suffered a similarly spooky ordeal in the very same woods, also captured the whole thing on digital video, and also had his footage posthumously recovered, edited, and released for mainstream consumption. Synchronicity is a funny thing.
How to set about reviewing yet another of these found-footage things? We might say props to Lionsgate on their careful curation of every scrap of new detail relating to this spooky mystery, as and when they emerge. On the other hand, we might despair at the sort of utterly amoral business philosophy which allows for such unashamed profiteering from the tragic deaths of not one but two of the scions of Donohue. Just how do we think the parents feel, anyway? Can and should their right to privacy override the public’s right to information transparency? The arguments on either side could be endless.
Nuts to all that. Let’s just pretend Blair Witch is a work of fiction, an exciting new sequel to one of horror’s groundbreaking pictures. Since we’re treating it as a work of fiction, let’s pretend it has a director other than its doomed cast; off the top of my head, how about Adam Wingard? He’s made two acclaimed little horrors in You’re Next and The Guest, as well as proving his found-footage proficiency with V/H/S and V/H/S 2, in which he worked with The Blair Witch Project director Eduardo Sánchez. He’d be a perfect candidate, wouldn’t he? Hey, I’d see a new Blair Witch with him at the helm; he’s smart and populist enough to deliver something effective, but I’m sure he’d never sign on to a bland, cynical money-spinner. He’s that kind of director.
So would he have ever signed on to this movie? The evidence from the first half suggests probably not; James Donohue, a man in his twenties who lost his sister Heather twenty years ago and thus can never have properly known her, is nonetheless obsessed with the mystery of her disappearance. He notices a minor oddity in a piece of online footage and concludes that his sister is still alive, still living in the very same woods. He tries to recruit some friends to go with him, who weigh up the merits and demerits of the idea in a nightclub, where their dialogue is amazingly audible. James’ friend Lisa Arlington is the type of cold-hearted video nerd that we might run into in Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity, two other notable documentaries based on real footage; she decides to profit from his grief by filming his efforts, which she is already convinced will come to nothing. The morality of this situation gives her only very brief pause before she and James’ other friends make the trip over to Burkittsville to get the search started, hooking up with locals Lane and Talia, who provided James with the footage in the first place. Or did they?
Dunno really, the film’s a little bit confusing on that point. But that’s not a big issue when it comes to the Blair Witch series, which has tended to work best at its most mysterious (like the original picture) and had its scares dampened by too much explanation (like the excessive filling-in of backstory that occurred afterwards via novels, comics, videogames, several pseudodocumentarries, and the inept previous sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2). What is less forgivably vague is the characterisations Wingard has chosen to accompany us during this new trip to the woods. I quite liked the weird hick Lane, and his weirder girlfriend Talia, to about the same extent I enjoyed the Goth character Kim in Book of Shadows. But James Donohue is no Heather Donohue, Lisa barely registers, and the tokenistically black Peter and Ashley characters are even more non-existent. Our uninspiring group arrives more tediously in the woods than did the group in whose footsteps they literally and figuratively follow, and the picture can’t get away with repeating the slow build and subtle tactics of the original, which were new on first appearance and are now positively tired. Paradoxically, it fares no better when it makes an attempt at doing its own thing; there is an abundance here of jump scares, Cat Scares (i.e. jump scares that turn out to be fake-outs), and even a little gore, all of which were noticeably, and nobly, absent from The Blair Witch Project. The gore, I’ll admit, is cleverly employed and not at all overdone. Ashley cuts her foot crossing a very similar stream to the one the original group did at a similar point in their narrative. The cut grows, spreads up her leg, and exhibits some sort of sickening movement. The woods seem to shift of their own accord. Day and night become confused. And the scary quotient finally kicks into high gear. Wingard (or rather, I suppose, the Blair Witch) proves that (s)he really understands terror, utilising familiar images such as wooden stick figures in new ways that count more as re-contextualising (good) than re-using (bad).
That’s what the remaining part of the film consists of; hideously relentless terror. Finally our protagonists stumble upon the familiar cabin from the original film’s ending. Given how close the structure thus far has been to the original we might be tempted to breathe a pre-emptive sigh of relief, remembering how curtal the ending was; surely we’re nearing the end of our ordeal. We are not, and the next twenty minutes are some of the most gruellingly frightening we’ve seen in the cinema. Several new tricks are employed, proving that this film is more than willing to break a few rules, to show off a few ideas, and to be its own beast. We might lament that it couldn’t get there sooner; we can fault Blair Witch as storytelling, but we cannot fault it as horror cinema, which is what it sets out earnestly to do. It is not interested in making any sort of meta commentary on the original, on exploring its legacy or even expanding its meaning, despite some spooky temporal mumbo-jumbo. What interests Blair Witch about The Blair Witch Project is how fucking frightening it was. Blair Witch is fucking frightening.
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