Before I get into my thoughts on Blair Witch (2016), let me start off by saying that I’m a big fan and staunch defender of The Blair Witch Project (1999). I remember seeing what looked like handmade missing-persons posters with pictures of the cast displayed at my local arthouse theater before the movie came out. This was also the early days of the Internet (at least for me it was), and I remember going to the Blair Witch website and being fascinated by the images and information I found there. I knew it was just a movie, but the marketing made the story feel immersive even before I ever watched it. Then, when I did get a chance to see the movie in the theater, I loved it. I thought it did a great job of making the audience feel like they were part of the action, and watching the characters go from joking to bickering to screaming felt natural in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Even all these years later, I still go back and watch it from time to time, and I still love it. It’s just a great movie. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the new Blair Witch.
Blair Witch feels a lot like a remake of the original, but it’s really a sequel. James Donahue, brother of Heather Donahue from the original movie, finds a video online that he thinks shows an image of his sister in a house in the woods near Burkittsville. James has been driven to find out what happened to Heather ever since she disappeared, and the appearance of new footage found in the Black Hills woods prompts him to take a trip there to see if he can find something more. His friend, Lisa, has decided to document James’s search for her documentary class, and the two of them are joined by James’s childhood friend Peter and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley.
I really like the setup. Having the driving force be James’s almost obsessive need to find closure for his sister’s disappearance is a good excuse for having the characters choose to stay in the woods even when things start to get strange. It’s also a nice nod to the original while still allowing the movie to feel like a standalone experience. Having Lisa be a film student is a convenient, but reasonable, excuse for having cameras running the whole time, and it’s also an easy way to provide exposition. Lisa narrates pertinent background information and asks leading questions that would feel awkward and contrived if we didn’t know she was making a documentary.
Before heading into the woods, the group meets with the person who found the video and posted it online. He’s a Burkittsville resident named Lane, and he and his girlfriend Talia are amateur paranormal investigators interested in the Blair Witch. They offer to show James where in the woods they found the video, but only on the condition that he lets Lane and Talia tag along on their trip. Reluctantly, James agrees, and the six of them head out.
From there, the story unfolds a lot like the original Blair Witch Project. While camping on the first night, the group hears unexplained noises in the distance. This is also where things start to get a little annoying. Rather than allowing the night scene to play out quietly in an attempt to build tension, the scene relies on multiple unneeded jump scares. A couple of times the scares come from a character apparently sneaking up on the person whose camera we’re looking through at the time. What realistic reason could they have to be so quiet, only to make a noise when they step in front of the camera? Also, in at least one of those instances the second character has a camera as well, so the scare is simply a result of whoever edited this “real” footage deciding to add it in. Maybe it’s just me, but stuff like that really pulls me out of the movie when we’re supposed to be watching found footage.
The immersion factor is one of my main complaints about Blair Witch. Lisa brings a bunch of cameras with her to the Black Hills woods, which makes sense since she’s making a documentary, but all of those cameras allows for multiple cutaway options which makes this found footage movie feel more like a regular movie at times. The main four characters all have cameras clipped to their ears, and they always seem to have everyone perfectly framed. It feels odd and unrealistic, and at times it seems like the camera angles don’t quite match where a character’s head is actually pointing. As people get separated and start to disappear this becomes less of an issue, but it still allows for the option to cut from one person to another, killing any tension that might be building when someone is lost in the woods or running from whatever is following them.
One of the things that helped The Blair Witch Project was that there weren’t many options to cut away. A lot of the time there were only one or two cameras going, so the only choices the editors had were to let a scene play out uninterrupted, or jump-cut to later. We were stuck in the scene along with the character. Framing was often bad, shots were sometimes blurry, and certain events happened off-camera. It made the movie feel real, like we were actually watching footage shot by people who were getting increasingly terrified. The footage in Blair Witch feels too slick, and the action often feels staged. We see everything happen fairly clearly, which would be fine in a regular movie, but it makes a found footage movie like this feel artificial.
The sound in Blair Witch was also distracting. In a few scenes there’s an atmospheric hum added in to build tension. Normally this would be fine, but again, it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel like sounds that were actually caught by the cameras. Even though adding extra sound is a bit of a pet peeve of mine with found footage movies, I can forgive it since, yeah, the footage had to be edited together anyway.
Other sounds are less forgivable. For example, at one point in the movie Ashley cuts her foot on something. The wound gets worse as time passes, and there are moments when the pain flares up. In these moments, regardless of where she is in relation to the camera, and regardless of whether she has her shoes on or not, there is a very loud noise that sounds like something getting cut or stabbed. The first time it happened I thought she had sliced off part of her foot, but no, it was just a mysteriously loud sound effect unmuffled by distance or footwear.
It might sound like I’m nitpicking, but these aesthetic issues are important for found footage movies. There needs to be a good reason to shoot a film in that style. I think emulating the feel of the original movie is a good enough reason, but if that style is used, then it must be adhered to in order to make the movie work. If it feels too much like it was planned and rehearsed, then it completely kills the mood. Blair Witch feels too planned and rehearsed.
Beyond the look and feel, Blair Witch did try to add some new elements to the mystery of the curse. I like the effort and the originality, but the additions to the Blair Witch mythos didn’t really work for me. There was an element of time distortion going on in the woods which was interesting. It could have been effective if it had been used subtly, but it became very obvious and blatant later in the movie, and it didn’t really add much. There was also a kind of voodoo doll effect added to the stick figures, but it just felt like an excuse to add a cool special effect to the movie. Of course, these are opinions of preference, and other viewers might like the new elements. I just don’t think they added anything substantial to the movie.
I feel like there were also some missed opportunities for good character moments. For instance, there was some obvious tension between Peter and Lane. They argued a bit at one point, but I felt like they could have gone a lot further with the anger between the two of them as things got worse and people started blaming each other. There was also the opportunity for more to happen between Peter and Lisa. It’s established early that Peter feels like Lisa is exploiting James for her documentary, but that tension never builds to anything. Overall, the characters didn’t feel as developed as in the original. That said, I did like James and Lisa enough to care about what happened to them at the end of the movie. Also, I realize the original had half as many characters so there was more time to spend on each one, but still, there was definitely wasted potential in Blair Witch.
I think that sums up Blair Witch pretty well: wasted potential. The pieces were there for a good follow-up, but they just didn’t come together. I’m sure if this wasn’t a sequel to The Blair Witch Project then I might have enjoyed it slightly more since I wouldn’t feel the need to make so many comparisons, but even then I think it would just be an average found footage movie. The problems would still be there, but they might not feel as egregious without the original movie showing exactly why The Blair Witch Project is so good and why Blair Witch isn’t.
5 – Average
Blair Witch isn’t terrible, but I have a hard time recommending it. I think fans of the original will be disappointed because it’s not as good as The Blair Witch Project. Fans of found footage might like it, but it’s hardly a standout entry in the genre. It feels like we’ve seen this before, only better. That’s because we have. A few times.
RECOMMENDATION FOR FURTHER WATCHING
Willow Creek (2013)
Willow Creek is written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, and it feels a lot like a remake of The Blair Witch Project. When I first watched and reviewed it, I think the similarities bothered me a little. Upon reflection, I like what Willow Creek has to offer, and I think it’s one of the more memorable found footage movies. There are some very effective scenes, and I like the characters. If you’re looking to recapture the feeling of The Blair Witch Project, I think Willow Creek actually comes closer than Blair Witch.
Title: Blair Witch
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Featured Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
Run Time: 89 minutes
Availability: DVD, Blu-ray, VOD