Even with a bigger budget and more experienced directors, the new installment fails to re-create the spooky 1999 phenomenon.
It's been 17 years since The Blair Witch Project shot out of Sundance and became a box office phenomenon, a viral hit long before anything could be described as "going viral." ( The official website, which looks quaint by today's standards, ingeniously stoked the phony mythology that drew many a sucker into theaters.) For the young horror fans who turned the surveillance-cam chills of Paranormal Activity into six-film, $900 million franchise, "found-footage" horror is just another item on the menu, as easy to accept as the videos they shoot on their phone. But they may not realize how radical The Blair Witch Project was at the time, when mainstream audiences were not accustomed to paying full price to see a shaky fake-doc about three student filmmakers freaking out over twigs and rocks.
At the time, Americans were divided over whether The Blair Witch Project was one of the scariest movies ever or grounds for a class-action lawsuit. I landed firmly in the former category, but it stands as one of the all-time great horror anomalies. The directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, continue to make independent films but didn't go on to become the next Wes Craven or Tobe Hooper; the lead actress, Heather Donahue, has only popped up in a few minor roles; and the quickie sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was so bad even the director distanced himself from it. It almost enhanced the mystery, like the filmmakers left this one defining work of art and vanished into the Black Hills Forest forever.
Now there's a new Blair Witch, which officially premiered at the Toronto Film Festival after a cloak-and-dagger release strategy that had it shooting under a different title and emerging as a genuine Blair Witch sequel at Comic-Con two months ago. And it comes from a filmmaking team, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, who are hot off two accomplished horror movies in the home-invasion thriller You're Next and the John Carpenter throwback The Guest. Yet their combined talents can't bottle the strange, elusive magic of The Blair Witch Project again, despite a commitment to continuing the same story with the same found-footage technique. (Sorry, Blair Witch 2. You never happened.)
The characters haven't thought their actions through—and neither have the filmmakers.
Blair Witch finds Heather's little brother James (James Allen McCune) dragging three of his friends to the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland to find the house where she may or may not have died. (James would have barely been potty-trained the year his sister disappeared, but it's best to accept the premise at face value.) The quartet becomes a sextet when they allow two locals to join the search and all of them set out with shitty tents and an arsenal of technical equipment: walkie-talkies, earpiece cameras, a long-lens Canon, an older-model DV cam, even a phone-operated drone. They have no solid plan for finding the dreaded house, which the search team never confirmed existed. Their plan seems to be to wander around in the forest until they get there, at which point some positive, edifying occurrence will surely happen. Or, alternately, the Blair Witch will pick them off one by one and leave their fancy cameras for other yokels to find.
Certain ideas carry over from the old Blair Witch to the new Blair Witch, from the piles of rocks and twig-figures hanging from the trees to the Black Hills Forest as an enchanted dimension where all direction is circular and escape is impossible. But the key to the original Blair Witch Project is the slow accumulation of dread and madness, as feckless days turn into increasingly terrifying nights and the characters' psyches deteriorate in kind. Wingard and Barrett, perhaps pressured to give audiences the Blair Witch its detractors wanted, leave the rocks and twigs outside the tent after night one and never let up.
The last half is a panicked free-for-all, with no pauses in the action once night permanently falls and very few sequences that have been choreographed with a mind toward building suspense. When Heather finally dashes into the woods in The Blair Witch Project, it's a moment of heart-stopping recklessness, like she's grown desperate enough to hurl herself into the void. In Blair Witch, everyone's running full speed into the darkness, usually in search of someone else who's done the same stupid thing. They haven't thought their actions through—and neither have the filmmakers.
But there's noise. Oh, the noise! The microphones on the tiny digital cameras shouldn't be picking up much, but verisimilitude be damned, because Blair Witch renders every snapped stick, crushed leaf, and distant guttural noise as an ear-blistering assault. Then the yelling starts: "James!" "Lisa!" "Peter!" "Ashley!" And the rain comes flooding down after that, with the thunder pounding like mighty kettle drums overhead. Working with so little money, The Blair Witch Project had no choice but to tease the audience into being scared of what it couldn't see; the new Blair Witch, with its Pacific Rim soundtrack, tries to yell until your eardrums bleed.