Director: Adam Wingard
Stars: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott
What is it about watching the young being preyed upon in horror movies that we find so enduring, so morbidly entertaining? Time and again we are drawn back to the well, often through perpetuating franchises. A Nightmare On Elm Street. Friday The 13th etc. And now Blair Witch, Adam Wingard’s belated
third second* entry in what seems likely to become a rejuvenated series. Where does this schadenfreude come from? Is it their youth that we resent? Their vitality? Their arrogance?
If it’s the latter then there’s certainly plenty to spare here. You won’t find a more readily slappable bunch of nitwits until The Apprentice comes back on again. Wingard’s film (written by regular collaborator Simon Barrett) picks up twenty years after Heather Donahue and co. vanished in the Black Hills woods outside of Burkittsville, Maryland. Heather’s brother James (James Allen McCune) clings to the idea that she may still be alive out in that wilderness – an absurd notion never particularly challenged by anyone. As part of a university project, his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) has even openly encouraged that they take a camping trip to find out more, spurred on by what seems like new footage unearthed out in the forest by a pair of token misanthropes.
Wingard and Barrett approach the project as fans of horror, and are thus well versed in what a genre sequel is expected to provide: more. Blair Witch is, in a very real sense a success in this regard, and does everything it is supposed to do. It’s more muscular. It’s less patient. It expands the lore. Has more characters. It shows you more. And, as the more ambitious sequels are prone to do, it attempts to honour the first film while simultaneously etching its own initials into the same knotted bark. As is ever the case with sequels, the results make for a decidedly mixed report.
This is not The Blair Witch Project. It hasn’t a chance of having the same seismic effect, or achieving the same out-of-nowhere attention. But Wingard is a fine choice to make the attempt. Having gained traction with the one-two punch of You’re Next and The Guest (two of the mostly solidly entertaining movies of the decade), it is in fact his work on the collaborative V/H/S series and his earlier years in mumblecore with the likes of Joe Swanberg that make him a particularly savvy selection. Wingard has game in the found footage arena – and it’s game he certainly brings to the table here.
With its millennial cast (rounded out by Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), it’s perhaps to be expected that there’s a pacier, more homogenised approach this time. Where Heather, Josh and Mike’s journey to the witch was a more atmospheric descent into despair and cabin fever taking place steadily over several days, James and co. run into all manner of trouble more or less from the get-go. Here things get weird on night one and then truly amp up on the second – and what a long night it is.
Watching Blair Witch – which once it’s set in motion suffers an almost terminal case of ADHD (enough with the cheap fake-out scares already!) – underscores how accelerated the modern world is compared with the backwater grunginess of 1994. Remember how little actually happened in The Blair Witch Project? Not so here. Wingard’s film is of its era; behaving like an episode of the insufferable American Horror Story. There’s a disappointing assumption that if something ‘creepy’ isn’t happening every two minutes, that modern audiences will simply be driven to distraction.
The sacrifice involved in playing so many spooky cards in quick succession is that we never really get to know any of these kids; awkward outsider (Robinson) aside, they’re all somewhat amorphous. With their identical ear-mounted cameras (admittedly a nifty set-up), this band of misguided youths could really be any of their ilk. Any of us. Perhaps that’s the point. Aren’t we all just slaves to media now, incessantly documenting everything we do until we die?
So the journey’s a bit grating. However, it’s more than made up for by Wingard’s grand finale, which takes the implied haunted house ending of film one and stretches it to breaking point. Time is an elastic concept in Blair Witch, and I couldn’t tell you for certain how long the thrilling pay-off here perpetuates itself for. Hitting crescendo after crescendo, all that mid-film faffing is forgiven as Wingard leads his characters to the witch’s house; a place you’d charitably describe as something of a fixer-upper. It’s exhausting how exhilarating the gauntlet they run becomes. And in terms of horror set-pieces, it’s definitely one of the strongest to rise in many a moon. By itself this nerve-shredder of a final act has added at least a star to the rating below. God help us if these guys get their hands on the rights to Slender.
It’s too bad that getting there is hampered largely by the cast, who are all a little too fresh-faced and lacking in edge to really standout. Nobody is actually bad, but Wingard has a proven track record for teasing memorable performances from his ensembles, but that stubbornly fails to manifest this time around.
When looked at objectively in terms of what it has aimed to achieve versus the resulting film, Blair Witch is a success. It keeps the faith, it adds extra dimensions for whomever takes up the baton next time, and in doing so shakes up the series’ box of tricks just enough to prove a worthy and fitting entry. And, some naff attempts at humour aside, it hits the right tone, while feeling like its own thing. Then there’s the sound design, which pummels the audience into quivering submission.
But one wonders whether young horror-going audiences will particularly care? Won’t they be too busy documenting their distracted experiences direct from their VIP cinema seats, the glow of their identical screens diminishing the movie that plays above their heads like so much designer dark ambience? And don’t you just want all those narcissistic millennial pricks ruining your expensive multiplex experience to suffer for their continuing disrespect for our cinema spaces?
Best take them out into the woods and show ’em what for.
*Let’s all just forget about the 2000’s cash-in Book Of Shadows; this film wisely scrubs it from the record.