[Review] ‘Blair Witch’- Is it Worth Returning to the Black Hills?

Whether or not you were a fan of the original “Blair Witch” movie, there’s no denying that that film had a lasting impact on both pop culture and horror.  When we talk about these mythical “game changing” horror films, the “Blair Witch” is a film that one could easily point to and say that it had a significant effect on what we thought horror films could be.  Can a new “Blair Witch” live up to that lofty legacy?

If you’re still uncertain if the “Blair Witch” is in fact a sequel or a remake of the original film, I can definitively tell you that it is thematically a sequel to the original film.  The story revolves around a young man named James (James Allen McCune) who we learn is the brother of Heather, one of the original three that disappeared in the first film.  James has been tortured by the disappearance of his sister and he desperately wants answers about what happened to her.  James’ new friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), wants to help James resolve these long held issues by venturing out into the woods with him and searching for clues about his sister’s disappearance.  Lisa is also a film student so she wants to take the whole adventure and turn it into a documentary piece that she can use for class.  And now you have your reason for having a bajillion cameras.

Tagging along with James are his best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) and a pair of strange guides who claim to know the woods named Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry).

Now, I said that thematically the film is a direct sequel.  However, structurally the film runs into an issue where it inevitably made me feel like I was watching a quasi remake for the first few acts.  To be fair, there are only so many ways that you can have a group of people venture out into the woods and slowly start to go crazy and the original “Blair Witch” paved that path.  The film follows a lot of the same story beats from the original, but updates it for a modern audience.  In the original they had a wonky compass and a map to get them through the woods.  Now they have GPS devices that go haywire and a drone to get an aerial view.

I don’t think it’s a knock against the film that it invokes so many elements from the original, but it is certainly an interesting dilemma when you’re trying to craft something new while also acknowledging what came before.   In a lot of ways this film felt like it had a lot in common with “The Force Awakens” and the challenges that it faced.

However, after the first two acts the film manages to shake off the shadow of the original and break into some new territory.  Writer Simon Barrett delves a bit further into the Blair Witch mythos and manages to further evolve the mystique of the legend.  In the first film we got a very light sense of what the Witch was capable of.  There was a bit of possession and mental manipulation by the witch and some possible reality distortion.  Along with an incredible ability to stack rocks and make stick figures.  In Adam Wingard’s “Blair Witch” they take these concepts and extrapolate them tenfold.

Space and time become abstract concepts for characters as what seems likes hours to one person becomes days to another.  The woods seemingly become alive at night, twisting and moving so that paths that were once there are now gone.  Even the iconic stick figures become a greater source of terror in this new film.  And it doesn’t stop there, but to speak even further about how they evolved the scares from the original would bring us into spoiler territory.

And while they raise the stakes a bit with bigger scares and strange new concepts, the film suffers from a lot of typical found footage issues.  And this is where I get really bummed out, because while there were a lot of things I liked about the movie, there were just as many issues that pulled me out of it.

First of all, despite having a good motivation to return to the woods, I found a lot of the characters to be extremely flat typical found footage protagonists.  Not one person really stood out in my mind as I left the cinema.  Which is uncommon for a Adam Wingard/Simon Barrett film.  Their movies tend to be driven by engrossing and uniquely memorable characters like David from “The Guest” or Erin from “You’re Next.” The characters here feel a bit bereft of soul, so when they inevitably start disappearing they lack the weight necessary for me to care.

And I felt this greatly impacted the ending.  As things were escalating and the film is building to this grand crescendo it just abruptly ends on a flat note that rang completely hollow for me. It’s honestly the most disappointing aspect of the movie for me.

The movie is also filled with an obscene amount of jump scares.  Thankfully they start to dissolve away by the third act, but a decent part of the scares in the film felt driven by people bumping into each other and yelping.  The film feels aware of this fact as there’s one particular scene where a character finally address the fact that it keeps happening.  It’s a funny pay off, but if you’re the type of person who is put off by jump scares you’ll find yourself being a bit worn out by them here.

There’s also a lot of the crazy shaky cam footage in this one. I know that when talking about found footage films, that tends to be a given, but I thought I’d point that out for those that can’t stomach all the rapid movement.  Thankfully the characters also have ear mounted cameras, so the footage is a lot more stable in parts, but when they switch it to the handheld stuff it goes full on berserk.  They also inject a lot of artifacts and camera glitches to make the film more chaotic at times.  And, personally, I thought it made the film a bit uglier and didn’t add anything to it.

Overall, this was a very tough film for me to judge.  I loved a lot of the ideas introduced and felt that there were some strong concepts that fleshed out the “Blair Witch” lore just a bit while leaving a lot of mystery.  But the film doesn’t develop these ideas until much later in the plot and it didn’t give me enough meat to chew on while I waited for things to pick up.  It also succumbs to some unfortunate found footage tropes and doesn’t push the subgenre in any meaningful direction.  Overall, if you’ve been dying to return to the Black Hills the “Blair Witch” will welcome you with mind bending frights.  There’s enough here that diehard fans of the original will appreciate and grab on to.  But if the original didn’t appeal to you, this one won’t change your perspective on it.

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