Sub genres in the arts are transitory by nature, given that they rise to prominence and eventually fade away based on whatever trends happen to be popular at the time. It's the reason why young adult novels today are about teens in post-apocalyptic dystopias instead of high school babysitter's clubs, and why there are no new Nu Metal bands touring the country. Nowhere else is the constantly shifting nature of popular trends more readily apparent then the horror genre, which cycles through sub genres faster then a crazed maniac cuts through flesh. Slasher films, PG-13 Japanese remakes, torture porn, and supernatural stories are just a few of the most recent and prevalent trends in the genre in the last 30 years, and since horror films are traditionally cheap to produce, the Hollywood production machine can use them to chase the latest trend easier and faster then other genres. Since 2007, found footage horror has been one of the most popular trends given its emphasis on spooky implication and inference over big budget special effects and gore gags. However, over the past couple of years the sub genre has shown signs of age, most evident in the way that filmmakers have experimented with the limitations of the form, combining it with other sub genres and even deconstructing it. Earlier this year, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett announced a new film entitled The Woods, leaving many to speculate as to what this movie was about, given that there was no other information available and no knowledge of it before it was announced. At a San Diego Comic Con screening of the film, it was revealed that the movie's real title was Blair Witch, and it came as a huge surprise. Once the shock had worn off, though, it seemed all too appropriate for a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, the film that birthed found footage horror way back in 1999, to emerge from the darkness this year. For Wingard and Barrett's Blair Witch is a homecoming for found footage horror, bringing the sub genre full circle with a summation of all that it can do.
Blair Witch is a horror sequel in the classic mold, following the original film's structure and providing new concepts within that rather then blazing its own path (as opposed to the bold yet compromised Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2). James (James Allen McCune) is the younger brother of the first film's Heather, obsessed with finding evidence that his sister may still be alive somewhere in the Black Hills woods of Maryland. When he acquires a video found near the woods that he believes points the way to finding his sister, his friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) along with documentarian Lisa (Callie Hernandez) trek off to Burkittsville. There, they meet up with Blair witch conspiracy theorists Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) and head off to camp in the deep woods. From then on, the film plays like a Greatest Hits of The Blair Witch Project: creepy stick figures, rock piles, horrifying noises, geographical confusion, mysterious disappearances, a scary dilapidated house, the end.
By far the weakest aspect of Blair Witch is that it apes the original closely without being able to recapture Project's pervasive sense of frustration and dread. Granted, for a lot of people The Blair Witch Project's power came from the fact that its marketing campaign successfully convinced them that it might be real, but that's discounting just how well the original film creates a verisimilitude all its own. Anyone who loves camping, hates camping, or has simply gotten lost in the woods before can watch The Blair Witch Project and become anxious along with the characters at their plight, long before any supposed supernatural happenings occur. Blair Witch, however, doesn't linger on building characters or a mood, but rather barrels ahead to the next gag or occurrence. This means that the film is never boring, as the camaraderie of the cast and Editor Louis Cioffi's cutting keeps the pace up, but it robs the film of any depth it might have had. Right from the get go, it's unclear why James is so obsessed with finding his sister (and why his friends are so game to follow him) when he was barely old enough when she disappeared to remember her, and especially when the mysterious video he sees that inspires him to try to find her is so troubling it should give most people pause. When the characters of The Blair Witch Project went into the woods, we knew who they were in relation to each other, how they felt about each other, and what seeds were planted as to how things might turn sour between them. The most memorable relationship in Blair Witch is between Peter and Lane, and it's a completely antagonistic one that we get to see develop on screen. Any other interpersonal relationships between the characters are mostly off screen, which may hew closely to realism (as many private moments are not likely to be captured on video) but given the fact that Lisa is meant to be shooting a documentary on James at first and not on spooky goings on in the woods, it's a missed opportunity.
Ironically these shortcomings go hand in hand with the film's biggest strengths, that being that Wingard and Barrett have constructed an immersive haunted house-esque experience that is utterly nightmarish and relentless and always visually compelling. This is a quality the two developed on their previous found footage work for the V/H/S films, being able to manipulate an audience and give them just enough payoff to every scare and gag to have the fear linger in the mind. One of their best innovations is what I'd consider to be the main reason a Blair Witch sequel would be of interest in this day & age, that being the inclusion of up to date technology used by the campers. Similar to other great horror sequels like Aliens and [REC] 2, our characters venture into the woods armed not with weapons but the latest in communication and navigation tech, up to and including a drone controlled by smartphone app. It's not only a great escalation of the hubris from the first film (in which Heather memorably chanted that they would find their way out of the forest if they just kept walking because "this is America!") but it allows Wingard to create some excellent visuals. Cutting between last gen digital video, current gen HD and Bluetooth style personal cameras, the film's visual style becomes more deliberate and assured as it goes on, while still keeping things "shaky cam" enough to not break the illusion. I never expected to see some fantastic compositions in a found footage movie, and Blair Witch provides that.
The movie's final act is a marvel, opening up the mythology of the series and providing payoffs to set ups you may not have even realized were there. For the most part the film was shot in a real forest in Vancouver, but this final act takes place in a house designed by Production Designer Thomas S. Hammock, and his work adds to the experience admirably. Flashes of light shine brightly through slots between planks of old, rotten wood as the rain outside seeps through the roof, the light illuminating the eerie writings etched on the walls. It both recreates and expands the house from the end of The Blair Witch Project, and provides the film with its best visual palette. It energizes Wingard's technique as well, resulting in a bravura sequence in which Callie Hernandez's Lisa is trapped in a tunnel, the camera cutting between her POV and a handheld camera pushed several feet in front of her. It's during this act that Lisa becomes a character in the mold of Wingard & Barrett's prior heroines (particularly Sharni Vinson in You're Next and Maika Monroe in The Guest) and it's fantastic to watch.
Blair Witch may start slow, but by the end reinvigorates not just the series but found footage horror itself. Barrett clearly loves the first film and its mythology enough to keep its continuity intact here, both paying homage to the lore as well as expanding it and adding compelling new wrinkles. Wingard (along with Director of Photography Robby Baumgartner) backs him up with the visuals, even working in a sly nod to the most iconic shot of the first film. While the characters themselves might be thin, the cast is a blast to watch, and their chemistry with each other is very well presented. They also freak out incredibly well, naturally. If you’re not normally a fan of found footage horror movies or not a fan of the original Blair Witch, stay away, as there’s nothing here that will convince you to come around. If you’re a fan of either or both, however, you can’t do any better than this filmmaking team. Found footage horror may be on its way out, destined to be a goofy meta parody (Found Footage 3D is just such a film due for release soon) before heading out to pasture, but it's fantastic that the Blair Witch came back at least once more to show the sub genre she created who's boss.