Friday, September 16, 2016

Blair Witch

Review by Bob Ignizio

No matter how you feel about THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, you can't deny that it was a hugely successful (it made almost $250 million on a budget of $60,000) and hugely influential film. Hardcore horror geeks may grumble about how 1979's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST did the found footage thing first, but it was only in the wake of 1999's WITCH that every aspiring filmmaker with a camcorder started cranking out their own pseudo-documentary horror films.

Like any self-respecting, profit minded studio, Artisan films sought to capitalize on the surprise success of their film right away. They hired documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (BROTHER'S KEEPER, the PARADISE LOST trilogy) to make BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2. In an unusual move for a quickie cash-in, though, Berlinger did not follow the Joe Bob Brigg's rule of making a sequel: make the exact same movie as the original.

Instead, Berlinger went all meta, making a film that acted as a commentary on the marketing for the original film and the cultish devotion and hysteria it inspired in audiences. Artisan was appalled at the finished product, and did extensive cutting and reshoots to try and turn BOOK OF SHADOWS into a more straight-forward horror film. The results satisfied no one.

Now, 17 years later, Lionsgate films and the team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (YOU'RE NEXT!, THE GUEST) have given the people what they wanted all those years ago: BLAIR WITCH, a sequel that hews extremely close to the template of the original film, throwing in just enough new elements so as not to be a full-on remake. The question is, will anyone want it now?

Unlike the original, there's not much of a slow build here. We learn that James Donahue (James Allan McCune), brother of Heather from the original film, has been obsessed with his sister's disappearance since it happened when he was 4 years old. He's convinced a recently uploaded youtube video shows Heather inside an abandoned murder house. The fact that this video was most likely shot at the time of Heather's disappearance 17 years ago doesn't stop him from speculating that she must still be alive somewhere in the Maryland woods.

So along with his girlfriend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), best friend Peter (Brandon Scott), and Peter's girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), James heads off to meet with the Burkittsville locals (Wes Robinson as Lane and Valorie Curry as Talia) who posted the video, with the intent of having them lead him to where it was found. We get a quick recap of the most basic aspects of the Blair Witch legend, and a few minutes are spent explaining the new gear (head mounted cameras with GPS, a drone camera) that supplements Lisa's digital camera and Lane's old-school video camera, and then we're off into the woods.

There's a little bit of the aimless hiking and shaky nature footage of the first film, but this BLAIR WITCH gets down to the horror business much quicker. And in true sequel fashion, she does so in a bigger way. We also get to actually see things once in a while. But don't worry, you still won't be able to make heads or tails out of what's happening most of the time.

On a purely visceral level, there's no doubt that BLAIR WITCH works. There's a palpable atmosphere of dread, and it's a fair bet that the jump scares will get you. For this reviewer, however, it all felt a little too familiar.

Some of the aspects where the sequel does diverge from its predecessor prove equally problematic.  For better or worse, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT truly looked and felt like a the poorly shot footage of a bunch of ordinary, twenty-something schlubs. Hopefully this doesn't come across as insulting, but Heather, Mike, and Josh in the original film were not in the least your typical, perfect Hollywood actors. The cast of BLAIR WITCH, on the other hand, look and behave as if they could just as easily be starring in a show for the CW. And where the dialogue in the original film felt real and natural, the lines in this sequel feel much more scripted. Finally, there's much more of a plot in BLAIR WITCH, and that often results in moments that feel distractingly written. That just doesn't work when you're still operating under the "found footage" conceit.

Wingard and Barrett have shown themselves to be top notch filmmakers with their previous two films. On top of that, they've more than shown their love for the horror genre. It's obvious they like the original BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and they do their best to do it justice with their sequel. I just don't think the found footage genre is their strong suit. When you look at the strong sense of style and attention to detail found in their previous film, THE GUEST, it's obvious what kind of movies they should be making. And however much their hearts might have been in it, BLAIR WITCH isn't that kind. 2 out of 4 stars.

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