Blair Witch (2016)

There’s something evil hiding in the woods.

College student James Donahue (James Allen McCune) receives a YouTube video link to mysterious found-footage of what appears to show his long-lost sister Heather, who vanished, along with her film crew, some twenty years ago whilst making a documentary on the local legend — the Blair Witch.

At the behest of James’ friend Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez), the pair contacts the video’s uploaders Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who insist on joining the troupe on their venture into the woods to shoot a doco on the area where the DV footage was sited, James hoping to locate his sis along the way. James’ oldest friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) join for moral support, the former a cynic concerned that the trip could give his closest friend false hopes.

As the group delve deeper into the thickets, Lane and Talia share more of the spooky Blair Witch phenomenon, only to find themselves caught up in the terrifying reality that they (perhaps) may not be alone in the woods.

'Um ... you should probably ignore that shot ...'
‘Um … you should probably ignore that shot …’

Did we need another crack at the Blair Witch myth? Consider this — after the original film, The Blair Witch Project (1999), we were given the sub-par sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), a video-game trilogy, a bunch of comics and a young adult book series. While all this was happening, the found-footage horror bubble was growing rapidly, pretty much entering the pop culture zeitgeist and then bursting with the beginning and end of the Paranormal Activity series (2007-2015).

To give a clearer idea of the impact of The Blair Witch Project (1999), let’s rewind back for a moment. Picture this — the year’s 1999, the Internet’s around, but on expensive and slow dial-up, Wikipedia doesn’t exist and it’s a lot harder to dig up info on non-mainstream particulars.

Through word of mouth — what would be considered ‘viral’ if done today — a little feature called The Blair Witch Project starts gaining traction from the festival circuit and eventually a broader cinema release. At the center of the intense curiosity surrounding it is the question as to whether the movie is an actual documentary or a fictionalized account. So you jump on a more privileged friend’s Internet and bring up the official site hoping to get to the root of it all: but this further sells the reality. A TV special released called Curse of the Blair Witch (1999) only expands the eerie mythology and your desperate need to know. Then, not being able to take it anymore, you just watch the darn movie.

By this point, you’re either a hardened cynic (‘Is that all?’) or like Fox Mulder’s poster in The X-Files, you ‘want to believe’ and much of your emotional investment in the actual flick is fully realized or fizzled out.

While it’s important to note that The Blair Witch Project was not the first movie mockumentary ever made — as one early example, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) chronicled a wild time with famous rock band The Beatles — it was certainly the most influential on the modern horror scene, leading to the popularization of the term ‘found-footage,’ which eventually reached an apex with the arrival of Paranormal Activity (2007). It was that film that really kicked-off the proliferation of the sub-genre and with it, as many groans — George A. Romero’s woefully misfired attempt to cash in with Diary of the Dead (2007) — as gasps — the criminally underseen Australian ghost story Lake Mungo (2008).

'All this shaky-cam is making me nauseous.'
‘All this shaky-cam is making me nauseous.’

Consequentially, it seemed that the resurrection of the Blair Witch was just too late to its own party, and even director Adam Wingard, You’re Next (2011), decided it best to do a ‘Beyoncé’ and only announce the project just one month before hitting cinemas. And yet, here it is. And by golly, it’s actually great.

Truth be told, structurally, this new entry is much like the ’99 sensation, opting for a Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) approach — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, emulate it — while using newer technology thoughtfully.

Easily the biggest enhancement in this latest Blair Witch is in the sound design by Jeffrey A. Pitts, Faults (2014), this responsible for driving some of the most intense moments to an almost unbearable crescendo — the dynamic surround sound a significant upgrade from the original’s low-budget stereo track. Also smartly deployed is the cinematography by Robby Baumgartner, The Guest (2014). By utilizing tiny cameras that attach to the characters’ ears, an appropriate context is set up for (sometimes) steadier point-of-view shots and constant recording — all too often in this sub-genre, these can be the elephants in the room.

While its pioneering ancestor was more about subtlety and suggestion to the point of thrilling some and annoying others, Wingard isn’t afraid to show a little more — be it flashes of gore or the titular witch herself (oh yes, you will see her this time). Even the mythos is significantly more expansive — the symbolism of the creepy stick figures becoming more sinister in the context of its historical background, the forest bending all sorts of disorientating rules, the infamous witch house taking on another level of ‘wtf.’ If there’s a single defining difference in the scripting approach, the initial pic was semi-improvised and character-driven, while this new take feels more controlled and plot orientated. I really must commend Wingard’s long-time collaborator, writer Simon Barrett, You’re Next (2011), for finding such gaps to expand upon — these will appeal to long-time fans and coax the imagination.

'We've gotta stick to the plan!'
‘We’ve gotta stick to the plan!’

Thankfully, the cast are up to the realism challenge with Callie Hernandez, Machete Kills (2013), and James Allen McCune, Snitch (2013), shouldering much of the heavier emotional weight, while Wes Robinson, Until Death (2007), seems to enjoy having a few moments of crazy. Honestly, it’s hard to beat the genuinely worn down and frightened cast of the original, who were really thrown into situations and unnerved at random moments, but the new actors work well within the movie’s framework.

All in all, it’s pretty simple; whatever feelings you had about the first flick are likely to be mirrored in this new entry — like for like, hate for hate, shrug for shrug. If you’re new to the mythology, the great thing is Blair Witch works on its own and is likely to appeal to those seeking more nerve-jangling found-footage thrills.

So did we need another Blair Witch? To be blunt — no, but I’m damn glad we got one as good as this.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

Blair Witch is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia