Love it or hate it, there’s absolutely no denying the impact the original The Blair Witch Project had, both on pop culture and the horror genre as a whole. And while it’s true that the found footage genre being as popular (and profitable) as it is today is more due to the success of the Paranormal Activity franchise, it was the first Blair Witch that laid the framework and set the foundation for that series to come along and be as successful as it was. But what was for a very short period seen as potential franchise material was quickly derailed by an under-cooked and rushed attempt at a cash-grab sequel which resulted in the utter garbage fire known as Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which shalt not be mentioned for the remainder of this review, as well as the entire rest of human history, if we’re lucky.
Almost two decades after the whole Blair Witch phenomenon came and went in just over a year’s time, and enter writer-director team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the duo behind the solid but way over-hyped You’re Next and pretty good throwback thriller The Guest. For a while, it seemed that their next project was going to be a little outdoors thriller called The Woods, which garnered a fair amount of hype initially from more devoted horror fanatics. But the project completely exploded when at this summer’s San Diego Comic Con, it was revealed that what the team had been working on all this time was a belated sequel to the turn-of-the-century horror sensation, simply titled Blair Witch.
I’ll try to keep story details as vague as possible, to appease those wanting to go in with as little preconceptions as possible, but must also cover the basics as to get to the strengths and weaknesses of the film itself. Plot-wise, we’re back in familiar territory, as we see a group of tech-savvy young adults venturing into the woods in the hopes of creating a documentary out of their findings, while certain members of the group may or may not have a more personal attachment to their little camping expedition. Cue our main characters getting lost in the woods, followed by a series of increasingly spooky encounters with the titular supernatural force, and we’ve got another soft-reboot disguised as a belated sequel on our hands – think Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the modern horror genre, minus any of the original cast members or characters making an appearance.
And much like the recent Star Wars revival, a lot of what Blair Witch manages to accomplish rests on its re-tooling and repetition of the original formula and plot beats from the first film. Add on top of that a lot of interesting additions to the central lore and mythology of the Blair Witch (a personal favorite of mine being how the witch can manipulate the perception of time with its respective victims – trust me, it’s a lot more interesting in context than how I’m making it sound here) and expanding on certain set-pieces from the first one – namely an extended climactic showdown in the cabin which marked the end of the journey for the protagonists in the first film – and you’ve got yourself a more than serviceable companion piece to the admittedly fresher and iconic original.
While I previously praised the film for going with the recent reboot-disguised-as-sequel formula, it also comes at a detriment. Of course a certain amount of repetition from the first film is to be expected, heck it’s even essential in order to established the mood and reacquaint the audience with the world the film inhabits, but after it a while it no longer becomes necessary, and some diversions from the expected formula are called for.
This becomes particularly bothersome during the finale, which appears to be heading towards a rather unexpected and welcome divergence from the original, but ultimately falls back into just replaying the original, while also taking it a few steps further. That, and the film’s reductive abuse of fake-outs and jump scares grows tiresome very fast. Say what you will about the original Blair Witch, but at least it never resorted to obvious tropes where characters just appear in the frame accompanied by a startling noise from whoever is holding the camera. Nothing here is sinful enough to compromise the whole experience, but it warrants mentioning that these faults do hold it back a touch from rising to the same heights at the first film.
While only the second best horror film to come out this year with the world “witch” in the title, Blair Witch does almost more right than it does wrong. It repeats a bit too much from the first film and doesn’t explore as many potentially interesting and newer angles as it could’ve, but it still remains extremely effective where it counts.
Fans of the original shouldn’t be too wary of seeking this much belated sequel out, and while it probably won’t convert any nay-sayers of the found footage style, it’s largely accessible to a more contemporary audience and will provide more than enough memorable frights to those who find themselves into that sort of thing. For this horror junkie, it managed to get under my skin (tee hee) more than enough times to recommend it for at least one viewing. Just don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel in the same way the first one did, and you should be fine.