Apparently news hasn’t yet reached parts of the South that it’s pretty late in the day to still be making “The Blair Witch Project” knockoffs. Hence “The Final Project,” a feeble faux-found-footage horror in which another group of college film students traipse off where they shouldn’t — in this case an abandoned, supposedly haunted plantation — from which they’ll never return. The most enterprising thing about this amateurish exercise is the fact that, rather inexplicably, it’s getting a more-than-strictly-regional theatrical release: It opens Feb. 12 in Houston and three Georgia locations, with several screens in Yankee country slated to be added on March 4. While the film is bound to do slightly better slaking the bottomless thirst of genre fans via digital platforms, its blatantly derivative nature and lack of bloodshed are unlikely to win friends in any format.
After the usual framing device presenting what we’re about to see as edited from videotape evidence (a title card informs ““in 2009, six university film students went to Vacherie, La., to research a haunted plantation”), we meet our protagonists in a classroom. Most are apparently about to fail the course if they don’t complete an extra-credit project. Ergo that weekend they drive to the aforementioned historical site, one Lafitte Plantation in rural Louisiana, despite being warned off by various locals who’ve heard of (or actually experienced) weird phenomena there.
In a movie that barely crosses the 75-minute mark before reaching its drawn-out final credits, you might hope for compactness of narrative and action. But “Project” wastes nearly half an hour on its adequately played but stereotypically drawn principals’ dull banter and squabbling before they even reach the house. Nothing really “happens” until this first feature for writer-director Taylor Ri’chard and co-scenarist Zach Davis is within a half-hour of the end. When things finally do begin to go (ahem) south, imagination, atmosphere and jolts are in short supply. There’s one decent jump scare (even if it’s a false one), but otherwise scant effort is made to build terror beyond loud noises and the inevitable spectacle of panicked characters running around making laughably bad decisions (including that old favorite, “This is starting to seem really dangerous … so let’s all separate and look for the others!”). Most characters (all of whom are wearing head-cams) simply get thumped sooner or later by some invisible force, and the screen goes black.
Even the backstory intrigue inherent in a haunted plantation is neglected. There’s no real explanation of whatever once happened here (slave abuse or rebellion? a Civil War skirmish?) that might’ve created a vengeful supernatural presence. We hear that more recent residents merely fled after getting spooked, so why are this movie’s generic leading figures singled out for harsher treatment? One can only assume it’s because (a) this is a horror movie, and (b) they’re really annoying.
While many of the films that have since worn the found-footage concept thin at least attempted to distance themselves from the original 1999 model, “The Final Project” is quite shameless in how closely it follows the blueprint of “Blair Witch,” albeit to greatly diminished effect — from the early fake interviews with locals to the tearful (though not snot-running) closeup of a heroine recording her own video last testament. The difference being that where “Witch” went out of its way to lend an improbable situation credible psychological immediacy, this film’s victims never feel like anything but stock stab fodder, without even the payoff of graphic slasher-movie violence.
“The Final Project” does feel like a student film, though not in a way that benefits its own found-footage conceit. The video quality is surprisingly poor, making one wonder if characters from “2009” are for some unknown reason using equipment from a decade or more earlier. If this actually was an undergraduate project, you’d have to give the filmmakers an A for ambition (though not for execution), simply because they’ve tried to make a full-fledged commercial feature. Actually releasing it as such, however, is likely to stir less admiration for their pluck than ire at their charging real-movie ticket prices for something that might seem less than a bargain even if offered free on Hulu — that final resting place for so many lowest-end indie horrors.