Ambiguity is a central attribute to satisfying horror movies (I write "satisfying" because, if the box office is any indication, playing really loud noises every couple of minutes is the key to a successful horror movie). For a horror movie to get under your skin, you have to engage with it and that means, on some level, trying to figure out just what the heck is really going on. The Blair Witch Project, for all it did to foist the found-footage filmmaking style upon us, had ambiguity in spades. What this (comparatively) big-budget sequel, titled simply Blair Witch, demonstrates is that, with more money for special effects and a more eventful screenplay, The Blair Witch Project might not have been anything like the hit it was, because it might not have been nearly as effective.
Now, of course, a great deal of the success of that first film has to be attributed to the genius marketing that made it one of the first internet viral hits. But that also played on ambiguity - was The Blair Witch Project something real? Of course, now everybody knows it’s completely fictional (and many of us at the time, ahem, weren’t in the least bit fooled - but it was fun to play along) and so a Blair Witch movie now has to work on its cinematic merits.
Blair Witch (2016) takes us back to the Black Hills forest with James, the younger brother of the missing Heather, the girl from the first movie (much younger brother, since this movie takes place in 2014, 20 years after the “real life” footage was shot in the first movie). He has been haunted by what happened to his sister, and when a strange video appears on-line purporting to be of the infamous Rustin Parr house in the Black Hills forest, he’s resolved to go out and find the truth behind it. He and a documentarian friend (and we’ve all got those, right?) head out with James’ good buddy Peter and his girlfriend to go and meet up with the discoverer of this new footage, Lane, and his girl, Talia.
As in the first film, a goodly amount of time is taken here to establish some human beings before the scary stuff occurs, but there’s twice as many characters here as in Blair Witch Project, and they spend a lot of screen time spouting exposition. Peter apparently is worried that Lisa, the filmmaker, is exploiting his old friend’s life story. Lane and Talia live near Burkittsville, and love to talk old Witch history. They lead our partially willing documentary crew to the place where they found the tape, and then deeper into the woods, where they all camp out.
Nothing good comes of this. There's discord (the tour guides aren't above planting Blair Witch paraphernalia to make the trip spookier) and there's a lot of time distortion, so that when our protagonists try to escape the forest, they find themselves going in circles until night time takes them again... a night time that never turns to day.
It's informative that the director, Adam Wingard, helmer of indie genre benders You're Next and The Guest, describes what he tries to do with Blair Witch as a "Halloween hayride". It's an apt description, though it seems a strange goal for a movie: a hayride is a confectionary kind of entertainment, intentionally empty thrills (usually with copious reminders of other, more memorable entertainments.) That's what Blair Witch, in essence, does - it gives us reminders of thrilling parts of the previous movie, fills in some blanks, makes the subtler horrors bigger and more numerous. (Remember the creepy stick sculptures from the first movie? Well, Blair Witch has lots more, some of them man-sized! Awesome...?)
Part of Blair Witch's technique involves dispensing with the reality of The Blair Witch Project's production. The lo-fi aesthetic of that movie came about because the actors were, in fact, the camera operators, and for the most part weren't that good. Plenty of shots had dodgy focus and composition. Camera positioning was forgotten in the heat of an argument. It looked like what it was purported to be: an abortive documentary. Blair Witch apes the look, but does it with elaborate camera rigs and super-high quality HD cameras to create the illusion that these people are making the movie they inadvertently star in, but are also quite talented at capturing images on screen. Even if Blair Witch were the first in its series and had the benefit of the original's masterful "Is it real?" marketing, no audience would mistake this "found footage" for the real thing for longer than a few minutes.
The Blair Witch Project was a quintessential slow burn of a horror movie. It didn't move terribly quickly, and when creepy stuff happened it didn't spend much time explaining it. The negative things that happened in the story happened to the characters, as their friendly interaction broke down into bickering and distrust. It's a horror movie that famously showed you nothing, but still created some indelible images - the stick figures, the creepy house at the end with the man standing in the corner, the oft-parodied but still effective up the nose shot of weeping Elizabeth Donahue apologizing to her parents and the parents of her fellow filmmakers for leading them to their apparent deaths. It's demonstrative of the slackness in this new Blair Witch story that while the two physically replicable memorable elements of The Blair Witch Project (the stick figures and the house) are all over the place in this movie, the emotionally arresting moment isn't even attempted.
It's hard to do a fair examination of Blair Witch without reference to its predecessor, because this entire movie is that reference. On its own, it's only semi-coherent, with sketches of characters that lack any real conflict. At one point, Lisa is inside the tent with James, who is worried that his friends would think they were sleeping together. Why he's worried about that, what difference it would make to any of them, is unexplored and the theme dropped as soon as it comes up. It was almost as if the movie had accidentally lurched off the rails toward a bit of character development then had to be forced back on its way by the forward motion of the plot.
Also, it's not particularly scary.
While the movie was (for me) a big disappointment, the Blu-ray has one of those rare things in modern home video extras: a truly interesting and almost comprehensive making-of documentary. Over 100 minutes long (longer than the movie it supports) "Neverending Night: The Making of Blair Witch" goes into depth about all aspects of making this film: the technology used, the set design, the casting, the writing, everything. For a making-of documentary to be truly comprehensive it would have to also include the reception of the film, which for Blair Witch was just a bit short of disastrous. However, this long and detailed doc shows just how much heart, soul, love, and attention can go into any movie, whether it ultimately ends up working or not. Fortunately, the commentary track (recorded by director Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett) was recorded two weeks after the film opened and bombed, so plenty of time is spent considering what had been done that didn’t connect with the audience, as well as several hints at plans that they had for further sequels that will never see the light of day.
It would be fun to report that Blair Witch was unjustly overlooked and a worthy follow-up to its originator, or a flawed but fun retread. Unfortunately, ultimately, it's just flawed.