Even though these days the 1999 indie horror classic THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT has a reputation as being one of cinema’s most divisive films, it’s hard to deny the fact that it is one of the most influential and game-changing films horror of all time. Sure it wasn’t the first ‘found-footage’ horror film, but it was definitely the one that popularised the sub-genre and influenced many horror films in the years after its release (CLOVERFIELD, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, [REC] etc.). Not only that it also changed the way films are promoted though it’s amazing viral campaign, which is what every major Hollywood studio is using now to market their films. It would definitely be daunting for any filmmaker to make a follow-up to a film that was a true cultural phenomenon. Now director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett (the duo behind the acclaimed horror/thrillers YOU’RE NEXT and THE GUEST) have taken up the challenge to give us a worthy sequel to first film with BLAIR WITCH. So did they do? Read on and find out!
Set 20 years after the events of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT in 2014, the film tells story of James Donahue (James Allen McCune). He is the younger brother of Heather Donahue, one of the three filmmakers who disappeared in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994 when they went to go make a documentary on the local legend of the Blair Witch. Over the years James has been searching for any information he can about his sister’s disappearance. One day James discovers that someone in Burkitsville has recently found a video tape in the woods and posted it online. After viewing the newly discovered footage, he believes that it may have been shot by Heather and she could still be alive. James decides to head to Burkitsville to find his sister with the help of his friends Pete (Brandon Scott), Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a film student who decides film to James’ search for a documentary.
When I found out that director/writer team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett had made a sequel to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (which they secretly filmed under the fake title of THE WOODS, so that they could keep it a surprise for its first major screening at San Diego Comic Con), I was beyond excited. The first film is one of my top 5 favourite horror films of all time and having liked/loved their previous work, I had high hopes that Wingard and Barrett would deliver with this sequel. Which was something that the interesting but rather messy 2000 sequel BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 failed to do. So what did I think of BLAIR WITCH? To be honest I was rather mixed on it. While I did really enjoy it at first but afterwards when it was over and I thought about it more, the less I liked it. One of the main reasons why that is would definitely be in the approach that Wingard and Barrett took with it. While the first film was a deliberately paced but extremely believable and authentic horror film whose psychological creepiness slowing got under your skin, BLAIR WITCH is more of a fast-paced and intense thrill-ride where all the scares are dialed up to 11.
Now I understand completely why Wingard and Barrett would go with this approach. The audience’s relationship to horror films now have changed a lot in the 17 years since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was released. If the filmmakers tried to replicate the first one’s tone and style again, audiences would probably find it pretty boring and slow (you only have to see the audiences negative reactions to the recently acclaimed horror films IT FOLLOWS and THE WITCH received in that regard). So I give Wingard and Barrett credit for taking this sequel in a different direction stylistically. However at the same time by losing the first film’s creepy subtlety and ambiguity, this sequel loses the impact it could have had since it goes for mostly loud jump scares and big scary set pieces rather than any real atmospheric chills. Plus it didn’t help that like other recent sequel/reboots, the script sticks so closely to the beats of the first film that it doesn’t offer us anything new that we haven’t seen before. The cast do try their best with their roles but unfortunately, they are all written so blandly that I just didn’t find any of them engaging at all.
Now you’re probably thinking that I must really hate the film but honestly, I actually don’t. In fact I would say that as a film on its own regardless of it being a BLAIR WITCH sequel, it’s still actually quite watchable and at times an intense film. Having tackled found-footage films before with his segments in the anthology horror films V/H/S 1 & 2, Wingard knows how to use this filmmaking technique really well and build tension during the film’s scariest set pieces. Especially with the 3rd act, which I thought was really intense and the best part of the film for sure. While the type of video camera technology they used in the film made it look a too slick and polished at times, it was still used effectively as well. They use a mixture of both old and new D.V. cameras, small earpiece P.O.V. cameras and even a drone as well. I do wish that Barrett did a bit more with his script since you can tell that he has a lot of love for the first film. It was good that his script gets us reacquainted with the mythology behind the legend of the Blair Witch once again and he even delves into it a bit further as well. While the story can be pretty predictable at times, Barrett does provide a few surprises here and there that I did find interesting.
Overall while BLAIR WITCH was watchable for most part but at the same time, I still found it to be hugely disappointing and run-of-the-mill sequel. I’ll say this though: if you’re someone who really didn’t like the first film, then you’ll probably enjoy this sequel. However if you’re someone who really loved the first one, you’re most likely going to hate it. For me as sequel to one of my all time favourite horror films, I expected a lot more from it. Especially with the talent involved. I’m definitely checking it out again at some point just to see how I feel about it without the hype. However with that being said, there is no doubt in my mind that this film is definitely my biggest disappointment of 2016 so far.
Review written by Bede Jermyn