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.
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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.