You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Blair Witch’

Adam Wingard's respectful sequel to the 1999 phenomenon has scares and skills aplenty, but can't conjure the original's shock of the new.

James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1540011/?ref_=nv_sr_1

If you go down to the woods today, well, you’re not in for the biggest of surprises. An effectively jumpy, artfully artless follow-up to 1999’s landmark exercise in no-budget horror “The Blair Witch Project,” Adam Wingard’s “Blair Witch” plays enjoyably on viewers’ familiarity with the franchise as a new generation of enterprising young filmmakers is sent hiking in the Black Hills — before the considerably more gifted young filmmakers behind the camera fall prey to the plainly familiar. Setting up a number of promising kinks in the now-standard found-footage formula, as the seemingly spooked forest begins to close in its hapless victims, “Blair Witch” disappointingly casts most of them aside for a finale that does little to advance the series’ existing mythos. And advance it must, since audience turnout should be healthy enough to ensure another camping trip in the near feature.

A significantly more accomplished and entertaining sequel than 2000’s woeful cash-in “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” “Blair Witch” nonetheless reps something of a missed opportunity from Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, who so deftly and wittily updated 1980s horror form in their terrific, thumbscrew-tight features “You’re Next” and “The Guest.” The very title of the new film augurs a back-to-basics approach, significantly inflated budget notwithstanding, and it delivers basics in spades: a clammy-handed fear of the dark, ambiguously sinister pagan-style iconography, and so many thumpingly executed jump scares that even the characters call for a respite. A whole lot more than $60,000, the famously minuscule cost of the 1999 sleeper, has been spent on making “Blair Witch” look and feel as scrappily homemade as possible — faking it so real, so to speak — albeit with a little 21st-century help from drones, personal camera technology and a cracking, crunching studio sound mix that may just be the true star of the film.

Any viewers waiting for an ironic subversion of those basics, however, may be frustrated. Even as the tropes and techniques of “The Blair Witch Project” (whose creators, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, have executive-producer credit here) have become routine fodder for parody, Wingard and Barrett largely eschew any “Scream 2”-style bracketing of the original film’s lore in a more ironically knowing universe. The opening scene, in which grainy, grisly visions of terror from the original film’s climactic cabin in the woods are revealed merely as YouTube footage of questionable provenance, wrongfoots the audience in more ways than one: It hints at a deeper probe into the colliding realities, fantasies and fabrications that seemingly keep the eponymous legend alive, but Wingard has no interest in exposing, à la Joss Whedon, the rules of the enigma.

The setup, then, is simple enough, turning the events of the first film into something of a tortured family legacy for its principal new adventurer. Seventeen years after Heather Donahue went missing in the Maryland wilderness while searching for the Blair Witch, her kid brother James (James Allen McCune) is still desperate to find out what happened to her — and instinctively convinced that she’s still alive. His quest interests college pal and tentative girlfriend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) enough for her to make it the subject of her graduate documentary project, so off to the Black Hills they go, with coupled-up friends Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott), not to mention an impressive array of camera equipment, in tow.

Before they can forge ahead, however, they reluctantly agree to collaborate with local guides and Blair Witch geeks Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (ensemble standout Valorie Curry, channeling a gothed-out Jennifer Lawrence), a spacy, sun-starved pair who believe in the Blair legend to an unsettling degree. It’s not long before the tension between Lane and Talia’s hushed reverence for all things witchy and the college kids’ more circumspect approach sours the expedition, though when darkness falls, human animosity becomes hard to separate from more uncannily threatening omens.

That’s about as much as can be given away without spoiling the enjoyment for eager franchise followers — those seeking a pure-as-the-driven-snow first viewing should probably sign off here. Wingard plays his cards in commendably deliberate fashion, steeping his audience for a good half-hour in the generally morbid atmospherics of the setting and situation — tossing in disconcerting incidental details, like the unexplained Confederate flag in Lane and Talia’s living room, for bonus anxiety — before things start to go bump, and snap, and crackle, and aaaaaargh in the night. When the pandemonium sets in, Wingard and his crew conduct it with aggressive aplomb, shooting, cutting and scoring proceedings in quick, blunt strokes to work up a full horror-movie sweat while preserving just enough raw, haphazard found-footage flavor to honor the original conceit.

But once the film’s blood is up, its brain freezes, bypassing a lot of its own best ideas in the panicked chase. A potentially elegant time-warp device that removes the guarantee of reassuring guaranteed daylight from the equation — a potential flourish of genius for any dead-of-night chiller — is raised, before going summarily unexplored. Meanwhile, a dip into Cronenbergian body horror, as the Blair terror (or perhaps just a delusion thereof) gets more literally under one character’s skin, is likewise shrugged off before it achieves full formation. “Blair Witch” hurtles toward a claustrophobic climax that carefully parallels aspects of the original, with an ambiguous stylistic suggestion of virtual reality. It’s a clever enough reconfiguration, but the film sheds a number of its own innovations to get there.

Ultimately, for all its superior technical brio and moment-to-moment scaring, “Blair Witch” is a bit hamstrung from the start: How do you faithfully retain the spirit of a cultural phenomenon that was expressly built on its unexpectedness? The term “game-changer” has become a hackneyed one in the the industry, but “The Blair Witch Project” merits it to this day, from its trailblazing online marketing strategy to the establishing gimmick that has since become a standard horror subgenre — making even the most elaborately conceived found-footage works, Wingard’s film included, look a tad old hat. “Blair Witch’s” most ingenious and unrepeatable surprise was pulled off outside the frame of the film itself, with a Comicon stunt that revealed it as the true identity of Wingard’s hitherto secrecy-shrouded, supposedly original horror project “The Woods.” Crisp and canny as this retread may be, it’s finally hard not to wish we’d got that film instead.

Film Review: 'Blair Witch'

Reviewed at Dolby screening room, London, Aug. 24, 2016. (In Toronto Film Festival — Midnight Madness.) Running time: 89 MIN.

Production: A Lionsgate presentation of a Lionsgate, Vertigo Entertainment, Room 101, Snoot Entertainment production. Produced by Roy Lee, Steven Schneider, Keith Calder, Jess Calder. Executive producers, Jenny Hinkey, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale. Co-producers, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett.

Crew: Directed by Adam Wingard. Screenplay, Simon Barrett, based on the original film "The Blair Witch Project" by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez. Camera (color, HD), Robby Baumgartner; editor, Louis Cioffi.

With: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry.

More Film

  • Playwright Mark Medoff author of "Children

    Mark Medoff, 'Children of a Lesser God' Playwright, Dies at 79

    Mark Medoff, the playwright who wrote Tony Award-winning play “Children of a Lesser God,” died Tuesday in Las Cruces, N.M. He was 79. His daughter Jessica Medoff Bunchman posted news of his death on Facebook, and the Las Cruces Sun-News attributed the cause to cancer. “Children of a Lesser God” starred John Rubinstein and Phyllis Frelich [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Interscope Films Relaunches With Full Slate at Tribeca (EXCLUSIVE)

    The Interscope record label’s interest in film/music crossover isn’t exactly a secret: With hit companion albums for “A Star Is Born,” “Black Panther” and “La La Land,” they’ve seemed to own the soundtrack space at times in recent years. And the company hasn’t completely made a secret of its desire to move into film production. [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    'Avengers: Endgame': Fans and Theaters Assemble for Biggest Marvel Movie Ever

    For San Diego resident Shawn Richter, “Avengers: Endgame” is more than the conclusion to a monumental period in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the West Coast branch chair of Avengers Initiative, a cosplay charity that raises money for causes like the Ronald McDonald House Children’s Charities, the comics of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are [...]

  • Jillian Bell appears in Brittany Runs

    Amazon's 'Brittany Runs a Marathon' Sets Summer Release

    “Brittany Runs a Marathon” will be rushing to theaters on Aug. 23. Amazon Studios dated the comedy on Wednesday. The pic, starring Jillian Bell (“Rough Night,” “22 Jump Street”), won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. The flick follows the titutal Brittany, who decides to run around New York City in order to [...]

  • Lionsgate Hires Lynn Whitney in Marketing

    Lionsgate Hires Former Warner Bros. Exec Lynn Whitney

    Lionsgate announced Wednesday that Lynn Whitney will become head of worldwide paid media, partnerships, promotions and consumer products. Whitney was formerly the executive VP of worldwide media at Warner Bros.   In her new role, Whitney will build out media campaigns for movies like Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron’s romantic comedy “Long Shot.” “I am [...]

  • El silencio de otros

    Film Review: 'The Silence of Others'

    “Forgiven but not forgotten” is a platitude we routinely use to end disputes both petty and grievous, but it’s the reverse outcome — the mass forgetting of crimes and conflicts never truly resolved — that itches away at a post-Franco Spain in “The Silence of Others.” Soberly chronicling the ongoing legal battle of General Franco’s [...]

  • A Womans Work-The NFLs Cheerleader Problem

    Tribeca Documentaries Explore Gender Issues in Sport

    Up until recently, what it meant to be a professional female athlete in a world dominated by men wasn’t an issue that garnered high volumes of public interest, let alone national headlines. But that all changed in October 2017 when stories from the New York Times and the New Yorker detailing sexual allegations and improper [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content