Blair Witch

When I saw “The Blair Witch Project” in the summer of 1999, I didn’t find it scary. It provided an impressive, unique approach to horror filmmaking, managing suspense by suggestion and psychological tension. It also felt like a an especially clever student film, that somehow managed to sneak its way into movie theaters. Many believed that it was real piece of evidence and not a movie, as websites effectively created the allusion that it was truly a found film. I had read the early rave reviews coming out of the Sundance Film Festival and knew the film wasn’t real. After all, why would the festival screen a snuff film?

A month after I saw the film, I went on a camping trip, deep into the Colorado wilderness. That’s when “The Blair Witch Project” did a number on me.  As I lay in my sleeping bag, immersed in the dark of night, secure in my tent, certain scenes began to replay in my mind. Every crackling tree and snap of a single twig made me jump. Suddenly, I found myself agreeing with Rolling Stone magazine, whose critic famously declared the movie “Scary As Hell” (a quote that made it on the movie poster). Voices suddenly filled the empty forest and I listened closely as the silent woods revealed an intruder. I overheard two hikers passing through my camp. They were both talking about “The Blair Witch Project.” That’s when I knew the movie, and its lingering influence, wasn’t going anywhere.

The first sequel, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” came a year later and was made as a quick cash grab. After fifteen years of silence and dozens and dozens of copy cat “found footage” horror films, the Blair Witch has finally made an official return.

In the first scene of Adam Wingard’s belated sequel, we get to see the witch. It’s a stunner of an opener, as we observe found footage being observed online. The footage is scrutinized by the brother of the doomed “Heather” from the original. Her brother puts together a crew and sets off on a search mission in Burkitsville, Maryland, in search of his sister and the truth behind the legend.

Wingard’s bigger, louder sequel takes a more-is-more approach, adding CGI, gore and glimpses of the supernatural. While never dull and displaying a reverence for the original, it’s still a bust.

Despite frequent mention of Heather O’Donahue (the unforgettable lead of the original), no one in the cast centers and carries the new film. There’s an annoying, buffoonish African-American character who is (semi-spoiler) the first to die, both a big misstep and an old horror movie stereotype. There’s also an equally irritating third couple who tags along on the journey. The only character given any layers or intrigue is the Blair Witch.

There are lots of scenes that add to the mythology but wind up puzzling loose ends. I don’t mind ambiguity but the blatant attempts at franchise building don’t pay off. The over-abundance of cheap jump-scares (and what the late, great Roger Ebert referred to as the “shriek chord” on the soundtrack) make this an endurance test.

Once we finally get to the elaborately staged ending, much happens but it still fails to satisfy. One sequence that toys with audience claustrophobia is more irritating than suspenseful (the same goes for an unlikely climb up a tree).

While “Blair Witch” is intense and well made, I prefer the more ambitious (if equally unpleasant and fatally flawed) “Book of Shadows.” The new film borrows key moments from “The Ruins,” “The Descent,” “Paranormal Activity” and even the recent “The Forest,” to name a few. If you hated the ’99 original, this is more of the same, only on a bigger budget. For longtime fans,  this is a big disappointment.

Two Stars

originally published in MAUIWatch