Overview: 20 years after Heather Donahue and her film crew disappeared, her brother and his friends make a trip into the Black Hills woods to gain closure and investigate video evidence that suggests Heather may still be out there. What they get instead is glimpse of madness-inducing evil. Lionsgate; 2016; Rated R; 89 minutes.
The Blair Witch Product: It’s impossible to make a stronger Blair Witch movie than The Blair Witch Project. The first entered the zeitgeist at just the right time, breaking the rules and format of the genre to become not only one the greats of horror but of cinema in general. Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch is faced with the impossible task of living up to a watershed moment in film, and regardless of that impossibility there are two questions circling the minds of would-be audiences: “Is it better than the original?” And “Is it scary?” Neither question is interesting by way of a simple yes or no.
The first 15 to 20 minutes of Blair Witch were admittedly a bit worrisome. Our protagonists this time, James, Lisa, Peter, and Ashley, are a group of attractive young adults equipped with camera headsets with GPS, and an app-controllable drone. While we may be secure in the belief that these improvements in technology will allow for some unique progressions within the found-footage subgenre, there’s something false about this equipment. A large part of what made The Blair Witch Project so successful was the fact that it felt like it could happen to the average person. The cameras were cameras most of us could afford. The people, Heather, Josh, and Mike, looked like people you could bump into leaving a carryout store. But in this new film there’s immediately a wall of non-reality put up when we’re introduced to this expensive technology and our cast of attractive young Hollywood types, some of whom are immediately recognizable for their other acting work. The Blair Witch Project, felt exactly like what it’s title suggested, a project that you could believe film students were responsible for. Blair Witch, feels like “Blair Witch: The Movie” with the production values, plot organization, and filmmaking skills of experienced industry people. But this isn’t a dismissal of the film, and while being jaded provides an easy out from genuine engagement, Blair Witch finds thematic success in its Hollywoodification.
Into the Woods: Folklore changes over time, and that becomes immediately apparent as our group of friends enter the woods. The group, accompanied by two internet Blair Witch enthusiasts, Lane and Talia, who bribe their way into this trip, face changing dynamics as a result of storytelling . These dark web browsers, the most genuine and realistic characters in the film, bring the other characters up to speed on the mythology of the Blair Witch. Viewers of the first film will recognize repeated lines of dialogue and the story of Rustin Parr. But the details have shifted over the 20 years, and the old-timers have passed these stories onto a younger, more sensationalistic generation. In terms of structure and plot development, these pieces of lore are meant to ground us within the events of first film and make us forget the second one, but what they really achieve is creating necessary instability. The Blair Witch Project wasn’t built on big moments like so many of its contemporaries, but little details provided by the locals. Blair Witch works the same way, but when those little details can no longer be trusted or encountered exactly as they were before, we’re once again faced with the horror of the unknown. Our characters essentially know nothing, but they’re shielded by their technology and confident good-looks until the Blair Witch provides the means for their de-evolution, a return to the primal nature of root stories, independent filmmaking, and fear.
Confirm Thy Soul in Self-Control: It’s imperative to note that this group of friends doesn’t carry themselves like documentarians, and with only one of them, Lisa, being a filmmaker, they show little understanding for mechanics of filmmaking outside of what Hollywood has contextualized. During the first half of Blair Witch, our characters perform for the camera with a heightened awareness of being on film, the same kind of performance that Josh accused Heather of in the original. So not only do we have Hollywood-types in these roles, but we have characters who think they’re Hollywood types just because their image is being captured, and presumably to be shown publicly later. They’re cutesy and bold, and act with an extreme passion (in the case of Peter and Ashley) or timidity (James and Lisa) that befits characters we’ve seen in dozens of slasher movies, and people confident in the fact that they are in control of their own narrative. But they’re not in control. Just as the technology and our ability to capture moving images has improved over the years so have the powers of the Blair Witch. Once the technology start malfunctioning, and time begins to slip away from our characters, they stop performing for the camera and start becoming real people faced with the impossible. The makeup starts to wash away, as do the Office-style camera cuts to characters’ faces. The clarity of filmmaking that marked the first half of the film steadily erodes until we once again find ourselves with frantic, and jarring camera sweeps through the dark, and a return to a viewpoint that makes both the characters and the audience ask “what the fuck was that?” It takes time, but eventually this movie becomes a project once again.
From Out of the Dark: When we talk about the horror of The Blair Witch Project, it’s not the scenes in the dark that are the most frightening, contrary to popular belief. The most chilling moments of genuine, hair-raising fear happen during the light: the return to the log our characters had crossed before, and Josh and Mike’s madness-driven rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Wingard provides his own twists on these scares and they provide for eerie moments, but it’s in the dark where this film shines. When our characters return to the house from the end of the first film, and the storm hits, Blair Witch really elevates itself. This of full-body horror, the kind that doesn’t just engage your eyes but your entire self as you clench and tense at the nightmare inducing claustrophobia and glimpses of something just out of frame. It’s not simply the fact that these events take place in the dark, most horror films do, but the fact that this is the payoff for the evolved folklore we’ve been faced with for the entire film. As audience we become caught in a space of thinking we know what to expect, of recognizing the familiar, while at the same time encountering deviations that challenge that. Only by the end do we realize what this film is: not the next step of a story that we typically define sequels as, but a myth passed down and retold by younger and more sensationalistic individuals.
Overall: The tale of the Blair Witch is a story caught in a loop, one that has picked up little pieces to add to the mythos on its journey to be shared with audiences again. Like most retellings of scary stories we tell in the dark and have borrowed from to create others, Blair Witch lacks the surprise, roughness, and character consideration of the original. But it’s still frightening, still a story we’re glad was told, and whether it be five, ten, or another twenty years in the future, it’s a story we’ll tell again with a few more pieces added and a few more elements that reflect the era and technology of its time. As folklore, Blair Witch is The Blair Witch Project, bequeathed and altered both for better and worse by our changing sense of storytelling and our ability to capture it. Regardless of whether or not preference is found in the story as told in 1999 or the one told in 2016, these films are time capsules, cultural artifacts that can attest to the undying belief that there still are hidden places in America where monsters dwell and never die.
Featured Image: Lionsgate