SEPTEMBER 16, 2016
The funny thing about Blair Witch Project is that on its own, there really isn't much to it - there are only three characters (who are easy to dislike for long stretches of the film) and on-screen action is kept to a minimum. And, most notably, there really isn't much of a story in the movie itself - you get these quick references to things that only those (like me) who will scour BlairWitch.com and the tie-in books will fully understand, but remain relatively unexplored within the 80 minute film itself. That might be because it was never supposed to exist as a pure "found footage" movie as we've come to know them - the material of the three filmmakers lost in the woods was supposed to be part of a more traditional (but fake) documentary, but Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez realized they had something special with just that footage alone. So they released the "lost in the woods" footage on its own as a full-length film and repurposed the rest of the material into The Curse of the Blair Witch and other tie-in specials, making history in the process. I'd be willing to bet if they made that movie as originally conceived it would not have been the success that it was, and we certainly wouldn't be here with Blair Witch, a direct sequel tasked that takes a "back to basics" approach, albeit now with the pressure of reviving a potentially lucrative franchise.
And by "direct sequel" I just mean it's not a meta thing like Book of Shadows, but I want to stress that you barely even have to see the first film - let alone remember it - in order to follow this one. Again, a lot of the original's story isn't actually IN the movie proper, and the target audience for horror movies today probably weren't even in first grade when the film hit theaters, so you can easily sense Lionsgate didn't want to alienate anyone by making it Saw-like in its continuity. Normally I'd scoff at this sort of thing, but I see the studio's point; since it only had one (not loved) sequel, the "franchise" hasn't remained in the general public's eye the way, say, Nightmare on Elm Street has - you can bring that series back without having to worry about the audience knowing who Freddy Krueger is. But Blair Witch is a different story, because even people who DO remember the movie might not have ever bothered to dig deep into the "lore", so the new creative team (Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett of You're Next and The Guest fame) have an interesting dilemma - they have to remind the audience who/what the Blair Witch is while following up a movie that had a campaign that largely depended on outside information. Throw too much of that nitty gritty in, and they can't expect a new audience to follow along... but if they make it overly accessible to newcomers they risk annoying the people who wanted a sequel in the first place. Unsurprisingly, they catered more toward the latter option, creating a film that almost borders on remake territory while largely keeping any "reveals" self-contained.
(Warning: big spoilers ahead - this review is more for those who have seen the film already and/or don't care about what it reveals! If you're just curious if I liked it or not - I thought it was OK. I really like the first act and some standout sequences in the rest, but as a Blair Witch devotee I felt a bit underwhelmed.)
For years we've wondered what happened to Heather in that last shot of the film, and what Mike did after that point, and where Josh went, and how their footage was found elsewhere, and so on and so on... but this film doesn't answer any of that. The plot concerns Heather's brother James* being sent a tape that might be of his long-lost sister (the place takes place in 2014, twenty years after BWP's setting) by some internet conspiracy guy named Lane, so naturally he plans to head out to the woods along with three friends and a whole bunch of cameras. The plan is to locate the spot that this tape was supposedly found and start circling from there in order to see if they can find that house where the footage was shot, and in turn maybe find Heather (they don't seem concerned with finding Josh or Mike). When they meet up with Lane, he asks if he and his girlfriend (Valorie Curry from The Following, the only cast member I recognized) can join them, and off to the Black Hills they go, with Lisa (who is making a documentary, of course) filming their car as they walk away from it - a nice little visual nod to the original.
It's this first act that works best. The plot is laid out with minimal excess, and we're brought up to speed on the first film's story (that the three people went into the woods and were never seen again), plus offered a little of what happened after - one of our main characters, Peter, was actually on one of the unsuccessful search parties. As with the original, they're smart enough to throw in some humor (Peter's reaction to a confederate flag hanging in Lane's home is priceless), and what may be my favorite little Easter Egg in the film: they stay in the same motel room before heading out to the woods. The characters are likable, there isn't much being shot for no reason... and most importantly, as a giant fan of the first film, I was happy to be back in that world again. As I've said, I like Book of Shadows, but it's not really a true sequel - it's more like Halloween III in that it's set in a different universe entirely. This film brings us back to the original world (like Halloween 4!), where our characters have never seen The Blair Witch Project because it doesn't exist (and thus, they've also been spared the shitty parodies), and each little mention of Elly Kedward or Coffin Rock made me smile. It was, so far, exactly what I was hoping for when I heard what the film's plot was.
But as I said, it almost feels like a remake at times, and as it went on I found myself feeling more frustrated than intrigued. It's not like a beat for beat remake, but even by sequel standards it sticks a bit too close to the overall structure; even with my spoiler warning I don't think I'm actually giving anything away by saying it seems they end up in the same house near the end of the film. I can't recall if it was ever explicitly said in the first film, but this was Rustin Parr's house - which had been burned down fifty years before (again, per the lore), so how the hell did they end up running around inside of it? And why couldn't any of the search parties find it? This is one question the movie kind of answers, though it's very vague and mostly just adds more questions to the pile. We've all seen enough movies to know "time travel!" when we see it, and there are some cool touches in the idea that time is moving differently for everyone (our main characters are in the woods for like 3-4 days, yet the clean-shaven Zane ages enough to have a full bushy beard by his last appearance), but the film frustratingly refuses to clarify these concepts in any meaningful way. I know being vague was part of the original film's power - but it was also simpler. Time travel (and other things I won't spoil - partly because I don't know what the hell it was supposed to mean) wasn't ever really considered in the context of the film, because the house-burning history hadn't been explained in the first film (just in the books and website), so only nerds like me wondered about the discrepancy - to everyone else it was just some house in the woods. Part of the first film's power was the idea that maybe these kids were just going crazy and there was nothing supernatural going on at all, but this one cements the fact that these woods really DO have something going on that involves the supernatural. Once you get into that area, I think the audience can reasonably expect some explanation for what is going on, because you can no longer coast on the ambiguity. All of the people who watched Blair Witch Project and walked away thinking that Heather had just cracked up now have proof that they were wrong, but that's it - no follow through. You can't just tell someone they're wrong without offering some hard evidence - it's like telling a kid he's grounded without telling him why.
I mean, near the end of the movie there's a pretty big reveal about that tape that sent them on their journey to begin with, and I'm not even sure the characters realize it. That to me seems like a giant missed opportunity to show us something that we haven't seen in one of these movies. Or maybe we have (I know I've seen a lot, but not all of them), but you know what we HAVE seen, a lot? People running through woods with cameras, and people screaming each others' names because they're not sure where they went, and any number of other found footage tropes that the movie gives us instead. See, part of what made the first film such a phenomenon was how unique it was; I know people love to cite Last Broadcast and Cannibal Holocaust as "doing it first", but that's not accurate. Cannibal Holocaust starts off and for quite some time remains a traditionally shot film, with the "found" part of it not even making half of the runtime if memory serves. And Last Broadcast is, ironically, a faux documentary with talking heads and recreations - the same sort of thing Blair Witch Project was originally designed to be. But BWP didn't offer any outside perspective; from start to finish, we are seeing everything through Heather or Josh's POV (or Mike after Josh disappears). Hell, we never see all three of them in the same shot because one of them is always holding the camera. This allowed the filmmakers (or, the cast) to create a subconscious effect on the viewer that keeps the movie from ever feeling anything like those others - and that's why so many scores of found footage movies since are compared to Blair Witch Project and not Cannibal Holocaust.
I bring this up because the movie seems to forget the audience has seen a lot of these things since 1999, and it's not quite as novel anymore. If anything the style is kind of played out; there are still the occasional winners (The Visit, or even closer cousin Willow Creek), but as of late it's the ones that act more like regular documentaries (The Atticus Institute) or rely on surveillance (Hangman) that work better than the ones that put the cameras in the hands of their characters the whole time. The narrative offers a solution to the usual "Why are they filming?" issue by giving them all little ear-cams (they look like Bluetooth headsets), but in execution there isn't much difference to how it looks to us in the audience - lot of shaky-cam, the usual digital hiccups, etc. The best chance they had to give the film something novel in its look is the fact that Lisa brings a drone along for overhead shots - and it never gets used once for a scare scene. Or, to be specific, its CAMERA never gets used for a scare scene - one of the film's best sequences happens when the thing gets stuck in a tree and Ashley (Peter's girlfriend) climbs up to free it. But before then, it's used for a couple of "Let's get a shot of the woods to see how far they are from civilization" kind of big crane-like shots, and nothing else. I guess it's kind of clever in a way, to introduce new tech (they also have GPS, but it never really factors into anything) but ultimately rely on the good ol' fashioned stuff that worked wonders in 1999 (one character even has a tape-based DV camera instead of a newer one with memory cards), but it doesn't change the fact that the special/unique feeling the original film offered obviously no longer applies.
Indeed, some of the best moments of the movie were kind of independent of the POV approach, in that it was the idea of the scene itself that was interesting, not how they filmed it. I already talked about the tree one, but there's also a terrific bit where Lisa is trapped in a tunnel that probably would have been shot more or less the same way if the movie was a traditional feature (she has two cameras, one that she's pushing and one on her ear, that even offers us two angles of the traumatic experience). And there's a surprising detour into body horror territory, where Ashley - who gets a cut on her foot early on - picks at the wound and finds... well, I'm not sure. But it's a creepy bit that is an exception from the film's frustrating vagueness, because it reminded me of Heather finding Josh's... WHAT? in the first film (if memory of the audio commentary serves it was his hair and teeth, but it's impossible to tell in the film itself). I also liked how the stickmen were used, though the POV aesthetic robs us of a clear look at an incredible reaction to one of them being snapped in half (you can only kind of tell what happened in the aftermath, not in the moment itself). I wouldn't go so far as to say that the movie SHOULD have been shot traditionally, but it's odd how often I was either frustrated by its limitations or just plain forgetting that it was supposed to be someone's POV. With so few handheld cameras and so many characters filming (via cameras we often can't even see on the others, blocked by hair or just the way they're standing), it lacks the intimacy the best of this sub-genre offers, where we always know who is filming and never forget that it's their perspective on the events around them. The movie takes time to establish how it can get around the usual "why are they filming?" pratfalls (the cameras are attached to their ears and basically forgotten, plus they have a tree-mounted cam showing the whole campsite), so it's a sin to keep us from ever getting good looks at this stuff. Why bother setting up a "cheat" if you're not going to put it to good use?
Going over it in my head, I realize that perhaps my main issue is that it kind of feels too much like a real movie? I really love the original, in part because they got it so RIGHT - you can easily dupe someone into thinking it's a legit "found footage" movie (or snuff film - inaccurate since no one dies onscreen, but semantics), because there's nothing that gives away the illusion. Even the end credits barely suggested otherwise since the film was shot by its actors and only had like 5-6 guys behind the concept and execution. Not the case here - the sound design alone is on par with any major Hollywood blockbuster, and it's just a bit too slick and too clean to work on that level, courtesy of the hundreds of crew people who worked on it per the end credits, which are as long as any traditional feature. Not that it's a crippling flaw for audiences (obviously, since you can levy the same "complaint" at Cloverfield and Quarantine and those movies weren't hurt any), and again it seems as if they were aiming more at audiences who had a passing familiarity with the original and would check this out the same way they might check out a remake (familiar title, but not a movie they might have actually SEEN). But I'm not that person - I'm the guy who was disappointed the title didn't have a "3" in it. And as a champion of the POV format when its utilized correctly, I had trouble finding much to pass my little test, where I ask why the movie HAD to be shot this way. Apart from the very last scene, I can't think of anything in it that would have lost its impact if it had been shot with regular camera setups, and since everyone has at least one camera we're never with one character long enough to get into their head the way we could Heather's. The POV was what made the first film so good - here it's more of a handicap.
Ultimately, I'm not sure if at this point, a direct Blair Witch Project sequel (at least, one without the original cast - and Heather Donahue ain't ever coming back) could ever be as fully satisfying as I would want. Too much time has passed, and it's not that I've moved on (I'm not lying - I have the books sitting right here next to me as I started re-reading them when the news broke that "The Woods" was actually Blair Witch), but horror itself has. What was once completely unique is now an over saturated market; just as Halloween II had to compete with not only the original classic but the literal dozens of other slasher movies that came out in 1981, Blair Witch faces the same things (plus a much-hated sequel souring the brand), but with even more time passed and, in turn, far more competition and raised expectations. I don't envy Wingard or Barrett (or even Lionsgate) for trying to achieve what, sadly, might just be impossible. Like I said, I don't dislike the film - there's certainly enough that they got right to make it a decent enough time at the movies, and it will almost certainly be received better than Book of Shadows. But I sure wish it was maybe 2004 right now, and I didn't have dozens of my own reviews saying "it reminded me of Blair Witch", because all of those movies left me almost numb to what this format can offer at its best. Hopefully I'm in the minority and the masses who maybe only watched a few of the Paranormal Activities and Cloverfield can get more out of this trip back to the woods than I was able to. I want another sequel, dammit - just don't make me wait nearly 20 years to get it.
What say you?
*Nerd alert - the brother's name is Randy in the Blair Witch Dossier. It's a canon addition to the overall franchise, so this is technically a mistake on the new movie's part, but I'm guessing the number of people who will pick up on that continuity hiccup is probably in the single digits. Or perhaps just me.