Monday, June 25, 2018

Blair Witch (2016)

Google this film and you'll be met with a smorgasbord of rating aggregate sites, all basically giving it a huge thumbs down. And no, it's not perfect, but I think Blair Witch has been given a rougher deal than it really deserves.

Of course, it was always going to be impossible to match The Blair Witch Project in terms of audience reception and cultural reaction. By no means the first found footage horror film (for that we could go all the way back to Cannibal Holocaust, and arguably further. Plus I'll always mention that The Last Broadcast came out a year before The Blair Witch Project did) it was a movie in the right place at the right time, breaking out into the mainstream and grossing nearly $250 million from a budget of just $60,000. Whatever your opinion of The Blair Witch Project, you have to admit it was a milestone in horror history.

So with that, despite this being another Wingard and Barrett dream team effort (like A Horrible Way To Die, You're Next, The Guest), this sequel is just "good" rather than "great".

The plot is simple: James (James Allen McCune) is the brother of Heather (Heather Donahue) from the original film, and has understandably never got over her mysterious and violent disappearance. After discovering previously unseen footage depicting (he thinks) Heather inside the same creepy AF house from the climax of The Blair Witch Project, he gathers a group of friends and locals to venture into the woods to investigate, so they can figure out once and for all what the hell is going on.

The gearing up sequences are a necessary but annoying start to the tale. Yes, it makes total sense to introduce newer technology, as the events shown here are meant to have taken place in 2014. So as well as the updated camcorder, we have a quadcopter/drone (I still can't decide if it was underused or used just enough) and the biggest cam contrivance: "earpiece cams". Even though they look like a bluetooth headset, these cameras seem to be able to film a full POV from the wearer...? There's also numerous mentions of SD cards and battery life, but ultimately none of that becomes relevant - so why bother mentioning it?

Of course, it makes sense why we have all this techy exposition up front. It's part and parcel of found footage, just like the "oh no, I lost cell service!" moment in modern horrors; we have to have an excuse for all the different camera angles. It's just my least favourite moment in any of these films, because it rarely plays as anything but clunky.

James and Lisa, with his "earpiece cam" visible.

Where the original was an exercise in long form improv, this was fully scripted, and the cast do a good job with what is essentially a lot of shouting and whimpering (there's even a small homage to Heather's to-camera crying moment). Callie Hernandez as Lisa has the most to do, and commits fully and convincingly, especially during an intensely claustrophobic sequence in the third act.

I'm interested to see more of her - and excited to see that she stars in The Endless, a movie I've been looking forward to for a while now.

Something unexpected was how reminiscent I found this to be of The Ritual. The nighttime sounds of the first film having evolved from children's voices and twigs snapping, to the screams of wolves and entire trees being torn down. The sound of something so massive out there in the dark made me think of The Ritual (*spoiler*! -->) and an immense old god lumbering around picking off unfortunate human visitors. I'd like to think maybe the witch has grown so powerful in the 20 years that this is kind of the case?

My one main problem with this movie comes at the very end. By now we all know that it's 'decent horror 101' not to show the monster - or at least not too much of it. However the glimpses we get of the "entity" here are way too lingering. This choice from these horror minds is surprising, and as horrible as the fiend may ever be to look at, some of the fear always drops off once you see it.

Despite this, Blair Witch is a competent handling of the evolution of the story, even if it rarely shows the finesse and imagination that we have come to expect from Wingard and Barrett. It still made me bring my knees up and pull up a blanket, ready to hide behind, and that sense of tension and unknown terror is such an important part of the Blair Witch story. Being lost in the woods at night is scary on a primal level, and these moments, though they mostly entail running, screaming and yelling, are satisfying to experience - even if they aren't anything particularly new.

A Wingard/Barrett 1.5 is still a strong 3 in the grand scheme of things! Speaking as someone who was properly obsessed with the original, this is decent follow-up, certainly making me re-live some of those feelings from '99! On Hulu at time of writing... I'd recommend it with the lights down and something to hide behind.

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