THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The Blair Witch Project landed like a bombshell in 1999. When it was first released, many audiences believed the film was real. The found footage technique was so new and so convincingly executed that it was easy to get lost in the illusion. (An infamous cable special proclaiming it to be authentic helped sell the idea.) Eventually hype overtook the movie, which is seen by many today as “overrated.” If you were there for its debut, however, the impact was amazing. I confess not sleeping much for four nights after seeing it, because the final five minutes would replay on a loop in my mind whenever I closed my eyes.
Blair Witch attempts to recapture the nervous, eerie spirit that made the original so memorable. It isn't likely to cause any sleepless nights.
The premise, which wisely ignores Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, is fairly straightforward. James (James Allen McCune) is the brother of Heather Donohue, the main character from the original. Long wondering what became of his sister, he decides to trek into the same woods to look for clues about her disappearance. Accompanying him are his documentarian friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and their pals Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott). They team up with a guy named Lane (Wes Robinson) and his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry) after seeing the former's online claim to have found a videotape hidden under a tree. Things don't go well.
Director Adam Wingard (You're Next) and writer Simon Barrett come up with one or two new ideas, the best of which will freak out viewers with claustrophobic tendencies. Mostly, though, the movie adheres closely to the original. Perhaps a little too closely. There are stick men and rock piles, plus a creepy old house. The first third of the picture also restates large sections of the Blair Witch mythology, which will be fine for younger viewers who may not have seen the original, but which feels redundant for those already familiar with it.
A large part of what made The Blair Witch Project so effective was that it preserved a sense of mystery. You felt the witch's presence, without ever really seeing all that much. (Even the creepiest thing – the dilapidated house with handprints on the walls – was shown only in the last five minutes.) Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez exploited a fear of the unknown, of what was “out there” in the dark, sensed but not seen. Wingard and Barrett make the choice to strip away a small portion of that mystery. Several of the scare moments are just a little too elaborate to really burrow under your skin. They take what we've seen before and provide more of it. Perhaps that's because today's audiences want more, or maybe it's because they felt it added a jolt. A concept like this works better when holding back as much as possible.
Still, there's no denying that Blair Witch tries admirably to be current. The performances are very good, even if we never really invest in the characters the way we did with Heather, Josh, and Mike. Using modern camera technology, like a drone, is a nice touch. Certainly, young folks going on such an excursion would take advantage of every new gizmo available to them. The movie looks really good, too, with solid production design and a convincing sense that the characters are deep in a haunted forest. Wingard keeps the pace moving, trying to find clever ways to stage some of the fright beats.
There are certainly things to admire in the film. The difference is that The Blair Witch Project was a groundbreaker, one which set the basic rules for all found footage movies to come. In spite of some stabs at freshness in presenting the requisites, Blair Witch is largely stuck going through the motions established by its predecessor. We're left with shaky camera work that often obscures what's happening, lengthy scenes of people running and screaming, the whole lit-by-flashlight aesthetic, and so on. The found footage format is generally played out by now. Nothing here does anything to revive it to any appreciable degree.
Blair Witch is worthy of some respect for trying to bring an up-to-the-minute spin on one of the best horror flicks of the last two decades. Ultimately, though, it can't provide the nerve-jangling sensation that its forebearer had in spades.
( 1/2 out of four)
Blair Witch is rated R for language, terror and some disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes.
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