The most puzzling mystery of Blair Witch has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of this supposed sequel, and everything to do with why a promising director the caliber of Adam Wingard would want to be helming this film in the first place.
Wingard, quite simply, is too talented for this dried-out husk of a movie. So is writer/partner Simon Barrett. For two guys who have seemed perpetually on the cusp of breaking through into, say, the “James Wan territory” that has also remained out of reach for their fellow director friends Ti West and Joe Swanberg, Blair Witch can’t be seen as anything but a step in the wrong direction. It’s an apparent attempt to simultaneously pay respects to a film that was novel at its release, but has aged poorly, and redesign that film with a half-baked meta twist it can’t rationalize or defend.
As a huge independent horror fan, it pains me to write all that. Wingard might well be the most talented member of his clique of “young” (now in their mid-30s) mumblecore/horror directors, and the trajectory of his films had been impressive. As early as 2010 he directed an excellent horror-thriller in A Horrible Way to Die, and had his first wide release in 2011 with the likewise solid twist on home invasion horror films, You’re Next. But what really made me a serious fan of his work was his 2014 thriller The Guest, starring a pre-It Follows Maika Monroe. All of those films succeeded on an unusual strength of characterization for their genres, with suspenseful scenes between principal characters that crackled with the simmering threat of violence, just below the surface. If there’s one thing Wingard is good at, it’s taking a modest budget and making a vivacious film with no wasted frames.
That is, until Blair Witch, which feels nothing like Wingard’s previous work. Ostensibly a direct sequel to the 1999 original, it follows James (James Allan McCune), the brother of one of the original film’s victims, as he travels with a few friends to search for clues in the woods where his sister disappeared. The film uses a friend of James making her own pseudo-documentary about his search to reinstate the found footage aspect, as it needed to answer the obvious question: Why would everyone be wearing cameras, 24/7? The nature of those cameras—head-mounted mini-cams and a lightweight flying drone—serve to illustrate that it’s been 17 years since the original, but are among the only indications that any time has passed at all. In reality, if you were able to match the look of the 1999 footage, the actual events of Blair Witch could probably be blended in seamlessly. And that’s not a compliment—if The Blair Witch Project is still remembered fondly by anyone outside of the intrinsically horror geeky, it’s not because it was a great-looking piece of art, but because it captured an entirely new mode of presentation to most of the people in the audience.
It stands to reason, then, that if Blair Witch really wanted to honor the original, they’d have come up with an especially novel way to present it, but that sort of ambition is lost on this film. It’s so full to the brim with clichés that I honestly started to believe I was being in some way brilliantly gamed, that the filmmakers were deliberately reveling in tropes so as to make an impending deviation from those tropes all the more shocking. And perhaps that is what Barrett and Wingard were trying to eventually get at, but their attempt doesn’t go anywhere close to deep enough in deviating from the outcome that every single person in the theater is expecting.
This film is also disappointing from a promotional standpoint, as it began garnering serious hype even before its “secret project” status and former title as The Woods was lifted. Much of that hype was driven by genre sites such as Bloody Disgusting, which purport to inform and provide industry info to horror fans, but must now be questioned in terms of integrity. They, after all, called Blair Witch a “horror game-changer that will absolutely wreck you,” and this it most certainly is not. Shall we mention that the author of that early, tone-setting review, Brad Miska, is apparently a good friend of Wingard’s? Or that Bloody Disgusting actually produced the two V/H/S films that Wingard and Barrett were involved in, and thus have much more than a professional working relationship with the filmmakers? It certainly makes one wonder, reading a puff piece on how the director and writer “extensively went over each scare,” if they saw the same film that we the audience saw, complete with half a dozen jump scares caused by members of the group silently sneaking up on their friends and blundering into the frame with an accompanying scare chord. Because lord knows, those same repeated jump scares feel extensively calculated.
Eventually, the film ends up where you knew it was going from the moment you sat down in your seat, in the same dilapidated house we saw in the end of The Blair Witch Project. These sequences are expanded fairly substantially, and at least offer a change of pace from the wooded portions of the film, but they too suffer from a certain cheap inauthenticity. Where a segment like this, entirely in first-person perspective, is more natural in a V/H/S segment like “10/31/98,” here it feels like an unrelated gimmick stitched on to the rest of the film—less a movie, and more a contextless piece of horror film test footage, or someone’s final project in a VFX class.
Ultimately, Blair Witch is a film that contains elements and imagery from many other well-regarded pieces of indie horror from the last 15 years, from the genuinely frightening conclusion to REC to the central plot twist of Christopher Smith’s 2009 film Triangle. It borrows liberally from them all, while lacking the key element that makes each—and Wingard’s own past films—so much more effective: characters who engender any empathy or fascination. If Wingard made one mistake here, it was in ever thinking that The Blair Witch Project had unplumbed depths that could still be further explored via the same found footage format. It simply doesn’t, and that should have become clear pretty quick. Here’s hoping that the director tackles a more personal project soon and finds himself back on track.
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Starring: James Allen McCune, Callrie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
Release date: September 16, 2016
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter.