By Scott Harvey, Contributor
Horror movies are a dime a dozen nowadays. If you watch enough horror trailers in a row, you’ll probably start to get an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Get ready for screeching violins, solemn priests, demon possessed children. These seem to be the requisite ingredients for a modern fright fest, though, of course, most movies these days seem to have been influenced by “The Exorcist.”
“Blair Witch” at least has a name going for it. That name is, of course, taken from the 1999 modern horror classic “The Blair Witch Project,” a movie which pioneered the “found footage” technique most recently employed in films like “Paranormal Activity” and “Cloverfield.” The idea behind the technique is simple: the movie is presented as actual documentary footage that has been discovered after something ostensibly terrible has happened to the person or people shooting it.
Though there was a sequel to the original “Blair Witch” movie, this film positions itself as the direct sequel to “The Blair Witch Project.” The story follows James (James Allen McCune) whose sister is Heather, one of the three main characters from the original film. This film opens with James discovering a video posted online that seems to show his sister’s final moments before disappearing, where she is running through a decrepit house, evidently being chased by something.
Convinced that Heather is still alive, James and friends Peter (Brandon Scott), Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Lisa (Callie Hernandez) who is making a documentary about James’s attempts to find his sister. They set out for the labyrinthine woods of Burkettsville, Maryland, in hopes of finding the house where Heather’s video was taken.
Later joined by Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the amateur conspiracy theorists who discovered the video, the group is almost immediately struck by misfortune. First, Ashley cuts her foot and has trouble walking. Then, a tree falls down near their campsite on their first night. Naturally, we as the audience know this is only the beginning of the terror they are about to experience.
Found footage movies have been around long enough that you would think that director Adam Wingard, the man behind such critically acclaimed thrillers like “You’re Next” and “The Guest” (which I highly recommend), would’ve found some innovative ways to use the technique in “Blair Witch.” Look at a movie like “Unfriended,” which put a clever spin on the found footage genre by setting itself entirely in a web chat between a group of friends.
But unfortunately, Wingard doesn’t really do anything fresh with the technique and, in fact, gives into its worst elements far too easily. The inevitably annoying thing about these documentary style movies is that anytime something scary happens, the person holding the camera goes crazy and we in the audience can’t tell what the heck is going on. It’s even worse in a movie set in the woods, where the people start running immediately when something happens. The result is that we get a lot of shots of the ground as someone dashes away, screaming. I get it, that’s how someone in the situation would probably react. But that doesn’t mean it makes for a good viewing experience. At times “Blair Witch” is so focused on hyper-realism that it forgets it’s a movie, something meant to be watched by audiences.
This movie isn’t terrible. It just isn’t interesting. The characters are given basically no backstory whatsoever, so it’s hard to care about them when the proverbial heads start to roll. The movie does vaguely hint at some sort of romantic tension between James and Lisa, but never does anything with it. I’m not saying that the movie should’ve been longer. In fact, the 89 minute running time is one thing the movie gets right. But a better movie like “Don’t Breathe” sets up its narrative efficiently by giving us clearly drawn characters with well articulated motivations while not sacrificing the economical running time. The subplot involving the cut on Ashley’s foot is also a colossal failure. The setup for it is actually pretty good, but the payoff never comes and we’re left wondering exactly what purpose it even served in the grand scheme of the film.
Of course the only question many people will ask about “Blair Witch” is this: Is it scary? The answer is yes. I’ve seen enough horror movies to I know the general beats of the genre, but I will readily admit that I was unnerved during a lot of this movie. The documentary style, by its nature, gives the movie an added layer of terror in its best scenes and there are some nice moments of silent terror earlier in the film, though the climax is way too loud and screechy. I also thought the ending, specifically the last two minutes, was probably the best two minutes of the entire movie and the one time director Wingard actually does something innovative with the found footage effect. Overall, though, there’s nothing to get too excited about with “Blair Witch.”