15 Sep 2016

Did we really need another Blair Witch film?

11:55 am on 15 September 2016

Blair Witch might suffer from the inevitable comparison to its predecessor, but in the year of the reboot, it isn’t dead in the water.

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Photo: Roadshow Films

When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it was the movie everyone talked about. Still in awe of the all-knowing internet and possessed with the innocence of wonder, audiences had many questions: Was it real? Was the Blair Witch real? Had three student filmmakers really gone missing in the quest to find her? Why did IMDB list them as missing? What was IMDB? Everything was new, fresh and exciting while, happily, the film itself was truly, gut wrenchingly, beautifully scary.

Swoosh forward 17 years and the irony is of course that today these things are the opposite of new and fresh. Found footage has been done to death. Shoestring budgets and unknown casts are disingenuous gimmicks. Viral marketing is a bloody nuisance. Yet through it all The Blair Witch Project was and remains a modern masterpiece.

But new audiences emerge, old audiences forget, and some people just watch anything: thus, in the great quest to turn every movie that ever made any money at all into a franchise, Hollywood has come once more for a beloved genre treasure and gifted us with Blair Witch.

As such, we arrive just as Heather (~from the first film~)’s gormless much younger brother decides that 17 years in the woods is probably chill and goes for another poke around to see if she’s alive. And so, with the help of his documentarian friends and some local confederate flag wielding weirdos, he sets off to see what he can see.

Now Heather and her mates might have been armed with compasses and handycams, but times have changed. Millennials don’t just go camping, they go CAMPING. They have HD. They have GPS devices. They have Go-Pros. They have a bloody drone for crying out loud. They are just as prepared as, say, you or I might be, should we choose to go tramping in the haunted woods. Surely they’ll be fine!

Sorry for the spoiler but they are totally not fine, and in between tent pitching and bickering and other camping minutiae, spooky things do indeed happen. There’s also a weird subplot involving an infected (or possessed???) foot.

And it is scary! Not disturbing or haunting or anything, but suspenseful, exciting and absolutely full of jumpscares. Which is fine: no one is expecting the heart-wrenching horror of the original. The young cast do a great job of exuding panic and terror and director Adam Wingard, of the very good You’re Next and the very stupid The Guest, is entirely competent at eliciting all the bodily reactions one could want during a horror film.

But making this stuff modern is hard and funnily enough proliferated access to advanced technology dulls the tension. The protagonists of The Blair Witch Project used their cameras as shields to filter a reality too ghastly to see unmediated, which beautifully justified why they’d bother to keep filming their very bad vacation. Blair Witch spreads its action across so many devices that the found footage angle feels too contrived to be worth the trouble, and with so many points of view the dread is diluted.

Not to mention, if everyone who goes in these woods dies, who is collecting all the tapes and memory cards and sewing them together in chronological narrative order? Is it the Blair Witch? Is she a deceased amateur documentarian sabotaging young creatives careers from beyond the grave??? (Blair Witch filmmakers please contact me if you would like to use this idea for a future project).

Reboots and remakes are big business, now more than ever. In 2000, a year after The Blair Witch Project’s massive success, the notoriously godawful sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released and seemingly put the whole thing to bed. Wingard knows that this is not an option and whether or not another one is in the works, the point of this film is to wake the franchise up.

It’s stating the obvious to say that Blair Witch suffers from the inevitable comparison to its predecessor but in this, the year of the reboot, it isn’t dead in the water. The original Blair Witch Project was shrouded in mystery, the kind that nowadays viewers have significantly less time, space and patience for. The film itself was slow, subtle and quiet.

Perhaps you couldn’t make that movie now. Wingard seems to think not, and in spite of Blair Witch’s ties to the original and various attempts to further that mythos, this plays like a remake for the digital age. The amateur footage is movie quality, while the action is fragmented and frenetic, switching constantly from points of view. The Blair Witch herself seems to have become a lot more forthright, yet her Godzilla-esque roars from the woods and penchant for felling trees amount more to momentary frights than the chilling paranoia of whispers just out of earshot. But within the parametres of filmmaking today, Blair Witch is what it needs to be. It’s scary but not chilling. It’s entertaining and fast moving and super suspenseful, but it still lacks the substance to live up to its iconic source material.

Blair Witch is in cinemas today.