Sunday, September 18, 2016

Review: Blair Witch

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
When it debuted in 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" was hailed as a true original and, despite having garnered some backlash over the years, the picture was a chillingly effective combination of low budget horror filmmaking and marketing. It also accomplished something that would appear to be impossible in this day and age - to come out of nowhere and become a smash hit, due to the internet still being in an earlyish stage and people not having the access to research everything ad nauseam on their phones.

A forgettable sequel ("Blair Witch: Book of Shadows") followed and, now, 17 years later, Adam Winguard - a low budget horror maestro whose work has ranged from moderately successful ("You're Next") to very good ("The Guest") - has rebooted the franchise with a follow-up that, on the surface and according to a few early reviews, sounded like a good thing.

Alas, having now seen the film, I can attest that it would probably have been best to leave well enough alone. Yes, "Blair Witch" has a few creepy moments - including an ending that is both spooky and completely incomprehensible - but they are mostly of the variety that have been overused in the found footage genre to the extent that they now induce sighs of boredom and eye rolls rather than shrieks.

I think you know what I'm talking about: things appearing just out of focus in the corner of the frame, loud bumping noises, jerky camera movements, people or evil beings popping up out of nowhere and, of course, individuals continuing to film what is going on around them, rather than attempting to make it out alive.

The setup for the film is slightly absurd. James (James Allen McCune) is sent a piece of video footage that was apparently discovered in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland (where the first film was set) that gives him the notion that his sister, Heather, the lead character from the first film who disappeared 17 years prior, could still be alive (as if).

He gathers up a group of friends - played by Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott and Callie Hernandez, whose Lisa wants to make a documentary of her own about the experience - and they travel to the woods where Heather was last seen. There, they meet a pair of locals (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), who agree to act as tour guides, but have their own agenda.

Once we're in the woods, it's down to business as usual: rustling tents, creepy noises in the night, disturbing stick figures hung from trees, etc. Having grown up in an era with unlimited access to digital media, the crew has GoPros, iPads, HD cameras strapped to trees and even a drone, all of which are used to record the creepy goings-on in the woods.

But while the technology has been upgraded, the story remains the same. One by one, the characters begin to disappear or exhibit strange behavior. The remaining survivors stumble upon the Blair Witch's house, which is where the first film ended, and the finale is a series scenes that might upset claustrophobics and involves lot of running around in the dark. The last 15 minutes of the movie are the scariest, but it's also difficult to discern exactly what is going on, due to the low lighting and wobbly camera movements. I'd argue that the filmmakers are relying on this to act as a cheap scare tactic device, so as to be able to get out of telling a coherent story.

As a horror/genre filmmaker, Winguard has talent. "The Guest," as I'd mentioned, is an intense shocker, "You're Next" can't be faulted for a lack of ingenuity (although it can be faulted for other things) and his serial killer thriller "A Horrible Way to Die," also far from perfect, has an unshakeable mood. I can see why he'd be attracted to rebooting this franchise, but "Blair Witch" should serve as a warning that sometimes you really can't go home again (or, in this case, again and again).

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