Blair Witch is back in theaters, a direct sequel to the found-footage film that started it all. Seventeen years after the events of the original, a new group of friends sets into the Maryland woods to investigate the myth and the mystery left by the first film. Armed with the latest in video equipment and aided by a couple of locals, the friends quickly realize they got themselves in way over their heads and are forced into the conflict they took so lightly.
Let’s start with the good. The plot for Blair Witch works well and aligns nicely with the story for the original. In this offering, James, played by James Allen McCune, enlists the help of his friends (one of whom happens to be a gifted and unbelievably well equipped documentary film student) to venture into the woods where his older sister Heather and her friends went missing 17 years earlier. The biggest plot hole is that it took a YouTube video to give James the motivation to go looking for his sister.
While on the subject of James, McCune’s portrayal is quite frankly poor. He plays the one character who should have biggest emotional investment in the story, but his emotions never seem to match the situation. His general demeanor is mostly chipper throughout the film and even as it rolls into the second act, he’s the one person on camera who just doesn’t fit the bill. Aside from him, the acting across the board isn’t bad. Callie Hernandez delivers a solid performance as Lisa, the female lead and burgeoning documentary filmmaker. She serves as the de facto narrator, but she isn’t the standout. That would be Brandon Scott. He plays Peter, James’s oldest friend, who knows about Heather’s disappearance but is openly skeptical in regards to the supernatural. Corbin Reid plays his girlfriend Ashley with just the right touch of playfulness and fear. Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry (who you may know from The Following) delivers a good performance in limited screen time as Lane and Talia respectively. Two locals who found Heather’s lost footage, posted it online and tag along for the adventure.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett teamed up again for Blair Witch after previously working together on V/H/S, You’re Next, and The Guest. No strangers to horror, the pair had quite a bit of responsibility making sure this movie lived up to the hype and stepped out of the shadow of its predecessor. Unfortunately, they fell short of putting their own stamp on the franchise and settled for simply making an updated version of the original. The script didn’t have to be great, it didn’t even have to be good because the story was already there. However, I felt the dialogue was too focused on humor, not on the real issue at hand, although the humor worked well more often than not (credit to Brandon Scott). The direction is nothing noteworthy, but at least Wingard was also responsible for the score. It didn’t take over and dominate scenes, but it lent itself to building tension at the right moments. The editing work by Louis Cioffi only hurts the presentation. Just because it’s found-footage style doesn’t mean it can’t be edited cleanly. There are far too many moments of a black screens, inserted phony digital degradation breaks in the film (which appear to have still frames from the first movie, not so subtly, inserted) and quick cuts from one camera to the next, all showing the same thing on screen.
Cinematographer Robby Baumgartner worked with Wingard and Barrett previously on the The Guest, but doesn’t carry much cinematography work under his belt. There is only so much he could do when handcuffed to a found-footage film, but there was little to no effort to maximize what was available, although including the DV camera was a nice nod to the original. The use of the drone, or lack thereof, was monumentally disappointing. Here you have an extremely versatile mode of filming that is relegated to flying straight up and shooting worthless footage of trees. The shots only serve to further establish what the audience already knows, they are lost in the friggin’ woods. The drone should have served as an advantage the group had over the environment but ended up a wasted gimmick. With all the state-of-the-art camera equipment proudly displayed early in the movie, the glaring omission of things like night-vision and reliable lighting equipment came across very dumb considering night vision would have been the most valuable asset to the plot and served itself very well to the audience, considering the filming location.
With all that said, the most integral part of a horror movie is fear. The quality of direction, cinematography, acting and post production work don’t even matter if the movie doesn’t give the audience what they came for…scares! Blair Witch does succeed in that area. Many of the fear elements available to this movie were already on display in the original, so the question became: What are we going to see that we haven’t seen already? I can’t answer that question without spoiling things, but here’s what worked. The environmental fear that worked well for the original (and other films like The Descent and The Ruins) is still on display and actually amplified by the upgrade to the filming equipment. Andy Hay and Dan Kremer did a particularly good job with the sound effects and editing. Few things are as unsettling as unexpected and unidentified noises amid what is supposed to be isolated wilderness. There are plenty of moments of pop-in scares that audiences have grown accustomed to accompany the general foreboding and the familiar stick figure effigies are just as creepy as ever.
Recommendation: If you are a fan of horror films or this franchise in particular, then it’s worth checking out. If you don’t care for the genre or have an aversion to found-footage films, I wouldn’t recommend this movie to you. The average movie-goer, I hazard to guess, falls somewhere in middle. So, if you’re just looking for what’s new in theaters and want to be distracted and entertained for a couple hours, Blair Witch is right up your alley. Probably not something you want to take the kids to go see (rated R), but I won’t tell anyone how to parent.
Rating: This movie could have been and should’ve been better. Much better. Instead we got an updated reboot of the original with a bigger budget. I wasn’t disappointed, but my expectations weren’t that high either. I’m no fan of 1-10 or 5 star rating system, so I’ll do my ratings in letter grades. And this movie certainly earned its grade: C-