Film: Blair Witch
Director: Adam Wingard
Every town has an urban legend, but they tend to exist amongst whispers of the gullible. But in 1999, the Sci-Fi Channel featured a documentary about Blair, Maryland, a town just outside Burkittsville. Backed with newspaper articles, newsreels, televised news stories and even interviews with locals, they told the world about an 18th century girl by the name of Elly Kedward, who, under suspicion of being a witch, had been sentenced to death by exposure in 1785. A body’s never been recovered and there’s been a long string of disappearances since, causing the town to believe they’re being preyed upon by her vengeful spirit. The most chilling tales happened within the last 100 years, however. In the 1940’s, a hermit from the woods had kidnapped eight children and executed them. After turning himself in to the police, he claimed it was Ms. Kedward’s spirit that had forced him to commit such heinous acts. More recently yet, a trio of independent filmmakers – Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard – went into those woods, determined to figure out what the ‘real’ story was. Of course, they, too, had disappeared. But their footage was recovered a few years later, and inevitably edited to be chronologically cohesive. The end result was far too chilling for television, so the film was released theatrically with an ‘at your own risk’ caveat. And you want to know what the best part of all this was?
It was fake. All of it.
I am, of course, talking about The Blair Witch Project, the movie primarily responsible for birthing the found-footage genre. I know a lot of people loathe it, but I really admire what the filmmakers set out to accomplish and how they went about it, you know? Back then, the internet was very much like the Wild West, meaning there wasn’t much skepticism about information online, and on the rare occasion there was, debunking it was impossible. So a year before the film’s theatrical release, the filmmakers capitalized on this by making a website complete with fake interviews, pictures, diary entries, etc. This made The Blair Witch Project the first film to take such advantage of the internet for marketing. But that wasn’t enough. To further feed the illusion these college filmmakers were missing (or worse), they had the cast agree to stay out of the public eye for an entire year, and the pièce de résistance? The film itself, as audiences had yet to wrap their heads around a found-footage flick. That changed the moment people realized they had been tricked, though. Suddenly, the movie ‘wasn’t really that scary anyway’ and people complained about the shaky cam footage. That didn’t stop The Blair Witch Project from making a ton of money though, nor having a Hollywood spun sequel churned out shortly thereafter (now THAT wasn’t a good movie).
Still, since The Blair Witch Project had developed some sort of stigma, it simply faded into obscurity.
Fast forward to 2016, and horror blogs across the web were raving about a trailer for some movie called ‘The Woods’. Cinemablend asked, “Could it eclipse The Witch to become the best horror film of 2016?” The rest of the horror community caught on, and The Woods quickly became one of the most anticipated genre flicks of the year. People boarded the hype train and were ready to be scared out of their minds. Well, a few months later, an unsuspecting bit of news dropped: ‘The Woods’ was really the new Blair Witch flick. I cannot stress how much I LOVED this bait-and-switch marketing campaign. After all, how could you get people excited for another Blair Witch when there’s so much hyperbole around the camp-fire about how bad the original was? You show people the goods and call it something else, that’s how. And with that, people were cautiously optimistic that the next Blair Witch – simply titled Blair Witch, coincidentally – would actually deliver.
Of course, things don’t always work out the way we’d like them to, you know?
Blair Witch (2016) is the story of James Donahue, Heather’s brother. It’s been years since his sister went missing, but when new footage of the Blair Witch house emerges on YouTube, he finds evidence that she may still be alive. Determined to find the answers he and his family have been waiting for, he grabs a few friends and arms them with a bunch of high-tech recording gear. Upon entering town, they meet with a couple of locals who claim to have found the new footage, and bring them along as guides. Of course, it isn’t long before their journey begins to echo that of the missing filmmakers they seek to find. Despite having GPS equipment and a drone that will allow them to see for miles around, the group get hopelessly lost. Paranoia settles amongst them… limbs snap and trees fall in the middle of the night. They also wake to find their camp surrounded by wooden witchcraft symbols.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the first hour of Blair Witch is a pretty blatant remake of the original. I have no problem when franchises resurface as products meant to act as both sequels and reboots at the same time – this worked considerably well for Star Trek (2009) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens – so I didn’t mind Blair Witch attempting such an ambitious approach, but the film ultimately does nothing to justify it. The only plot thread that matters is the ‘brother going after his sister no matter what the cost’ thing… and that’s it. Sure, a twist or two get tossed into the mix, but they’re far too predictable and leave no impact on the audience. This truly felt like one of the laziest approaches to a sequel I’ve seen in quite some time.
Until the final act, that is.
In the final half hour, this filmmaker put all his cards on the proverbial table, probably howling over how he’s ‘built things up’ by taking us for a ride… and I can respect that. What he’s done in Blair Witch is attempt to lure the audience into a false sense of security through predictability, which is kind of brilliant. And I have to hand it to him, detached from the rest of the film, the last 30 minutes or so are extremely well done. In this part of the picture, the twists and turns are legitimately freaky and add fresh new elements of lore that left me wanting more. And for anyone who was disappointed with how little the Blair Witch house was utilized in the original movie… well, let’s just say you’ll finally get your money’s worth. Forget walking inside for a few seconds, only to have the camera drop and the screen cut to black. No, this time the audience – forced to endure most of this in first person, mind you – will get the ultimate haunted house experience… in the middle of the woods… at night.
Of course, the problem here is that the filmmaker really didn’t build up to this at all. He goes from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye, and sadly, it’s too little, too late.
And who is this filmmaker I keep referring to? Director Adam Wingard, which surprised the hell out of me considering he has a film like ‘You’re Next’ under his belt. For me, that was one of the best survival-horror flicks I had seen in years, and when I have friends over who want to watch something that chills their blood, that’s the flick I pull off the shelf. So I’m going to assume Mr. Wingard wasn’t literally trying to BORE us for an hour until cranking things up to 11… but that’s precisely what happened.
Another serious misstep was that he couldn’t replicate the authenticity of the original, and that’s just mind-boggling. Authenticity is what made the original as impactful as it was, and yet, Wingard just couldn’t get that whole ‘people recording themselves in the woods’ thing down. And why? Mostly because of the cast that was chosen. They didn’t do a bad job or anything, they just weren’t right for the part. Some of them have a history of appearing on television and film, and that’s a big no-no. It doesn’t matter that the entire world knows that Blair Witch is a piece of fiction; the cast have to be nobodies. And even if the director had a gun to his head and had to pick actual actors and actresses, they shouldn’t have been gorgeous with perfect hair, and they certainly shouldn’t have been dressed to fulfill obvious cinematic stereotypes. But again, that’s precisely what happened. I’m a great sport when it comes to suspending disbelief when I go to the movies, but this time, I just couldn’t do it.
I’m not above recommending a film if I felt it’d cater to hardcore fans, or if it would at least entertain moviegoers who just want to shut their brain off for a couple of hours, but even those caveats won’t save Blair Witch from hitting $5 bargain bins in record time. I guess it just goes to show that it doesn’t matter how interesting a premise might be, or how talented a chosen director is. Things either fall into place – hell, some of the best films of all time are the result of hellish, disorganized productions – or they don’t. Obviously, the latter happened here, but what makes that an especially painful pill to swallow is just how good the final act was. If only the director leaned heavier on the ‘reboot’ side of this film as opposed to the quasi-remake stuff, I very well could have ended up writing a very different review. But as it stands, Blair Witch just isn’t worth the time. Skip this one with confidence.