People forget how scary The Blair Witch Project was in 1999. At the time, found-footage films weren’t a household scare — a relic that dated back to 1979 with Ruggero Deodato’s cult horror Cannibal Holocaust — and the Internet was still naïve enough for urban legends to pass by either unnoticed or disproven. As such, millions of moviegoers walked out of theaters that summer terrified, some even psychologically damaged, by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s little-indie-film-that-would-break-box-office-records-and-grab-248-million-dollars-worldwide. Then they told their friends, and they told their friends, and then they told their friends, and so on, and so on, and so on. Seemingly overnight, word spread about the elusive creature lurking up in the Black Hills of small town Burkittsville, Maryland, a legend that felt too real because it looked too real.
After all, nobody knew about Myrick and Sánchez just as no one had ever heard of stars Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, or Michael C. Williams. These no-names could have been anyone — they could have been us! — which is why it was so easy to relate to them as they wandered in the thick of the darkness, argued with one another, kicked maps into the river, and offered up tearful confessionals. Even better, the two filmmakers were insistent on withdrawing from the traditional and tired tropes of horror, opting for atmosphere, tension, and raw storytelling. It was like watching a campfire tale come to life, capitalizing on the way our imagination naturally takes over when we hear about something awful, unnerving, or out of this world. Because of this, the film remains at the top of the found-footage genre and continues to chill the bones of new generations.
So, why not a sequel?
Well, Artisan went down that trail back in 2000 with the rushed and confused Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a piss-poor attempt at meta-horror that starred Burn Notice hunk Jeffrey Donovan and rekindled all the familiar (and annoying) cliches of horror that the original eschewed. Although a financial success, the franchise was quickly shelved as the horror genre turned toward Ring-esque ghost stories, torture porn, and finally the Blumhouse-stamped found-footage of the last seven years. Which likely explains why Lions Gate, which absorbed Artisan back in 2003, decided to burn the Witch again this past year by tapping acclaimed indie director Adam Wingard. What initially began as The Woods, a hush-hush followup to his brilliant 2014 feature The Guest, eventually became Blair Witch, the first direct sequel to Myrick and Sánchez’s blockbuster.
Rather than offer another subversion, or even a clever ode to the 1999 original, Wingard and partner-in-crime screenwriter Simon Barrett betray what made the first film so effective. In fact, it’s almost baffling that this is the same filmmaker who handled genre exercises like 2011’s You’re Next and the aforementioned The Guest with aplomb. Gone is any sense of mystery or intrigue or atmosphere, all of which have been replaced by cheap haunted house tricks that would have made audiences from the ’60s roll their eyes in disgust. Also gone is any semblance of realism, washed away by a camera-friendly cast of hunks and darlings who wrestle with the piss-poor melodrama when they’re not mugging the half-dozen cameras capturing the prized footage, which, by the way, must have been plopped down on the porch of whoever used to edit MTV’s Fear.
Where’s the Godsmack?
It would have fit right in with this mess. Nothing is scary, nothing is remotely disturbing, and there’s this boring familiarity to the proceedings, namely because it’s more or less a beat-by-beat remake of the original. As we follow Heather Donahue’s moronic brother James (James Allen McCune), who’s roped in an irritable crew of pals and Burkittsville locals to find his sister, the same hijinks ensue. Those little Blair Witch stick figurines? Yep. The eerie voices in the woods? Oh, they’re louder this time. The titular force itself? Now you get to see it! The real difference this go-around, however, is that you undoubtedly know it’s a movie, and not just from seeing the posters or reading about the mythology online or being a rational human being, but mostly because there’s no indication this is anything but a slick, cut-and-paste affair. There’s no illusion otherwise.
(Ranking: Every Horror Movie Sequel From Worst to Best)
Blair Witch is disappointing on multiple levels, all of which have nothing to do with the franchise. First off, we never needed a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. It was a one-and-done idea that arrived at the right time and place and the spooky magic was all in the unassuming execution. No, what’s ultimately disappointing about this film is how it’s taken one of the more promising filmmakers around and brought him down to Hollywood’s pathetic level of cheese and predictability. Sure, there are glimpses of his genius here — specifically in the claustrophobic finale — but they’re hardly as apparent as the number of annoying jump scares that nag and persist from beginning to end. Hopefully, this whole production is one last jump scare from the very horrific summer of film, one that led its audiences out into the woods and left them there to rot amongst the mediocrity.
Somebody find the map.