by Patrick Bromley
Like the 2011 version of The Thing and last summer's Jurassic World, the new found footage horror movie Blair Witch plays less like a sequel and more as a redo of an earlier, much better movie. Rather than finding a new approach to the story after 17 years -- something even the extremely problematic and rushed-into-production Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was able to do back in 2000 -- writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard seem content to repeat the structure and major beats of the breakthrough original Blair Witch Project. It's exactly what you've already seen, only worse.
One of the the things I've liked best about the collaborations between Barrett and Wingard -- one of the most exciting creative partnerships in horror today -- to this point is that they have time and again subverted our expectations and twisted genre conventions so that each of their movies become something unique and different while still existing inside of a prescribed framework. Rather than doing a traditional serial killer movie or a home invasion film or another '80s-inspired riff on The Terminator, Wingard and Barrett made A Horrible Way to Die and You're Next and The Guest, three distinctive and surprising movies that stand apart from everything else in the genre. The prospect of them tackling a found footage movie was a promising one; while I'm no fan of that style of storytelling and haven't been clamoring for a Blair Witch sequel post-Book of Shadows, I had faith that Wingard and Barrett could once again put their spin on the material and come up with something fresh.
It's that slavish faithfulness to the original that is the undoing of Blair Witch, which offers little more than a rehash until it chooses to literalize that which was only suggested back in 1999. While it's still a low-budget horror film at $5 million, that's significantly higher than the micro-budget original; it's a slicker movie, one that feels more expensive and much less authentic and real. Divorced of the ingenious marketing campaign that presented the first movie as a true story, directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick still managed to make a film that felt completely believable every step of the way. They understood that for the climactic scares to work, the audience needed to be completely worn down and run ragged -- we needed to feel as exhausted and hopeless as our onscreen proxies. Not so in Blair Witch, which practically flips a switch between the half in which everything is fine and the half in which panic has set in. The actors don't help, either. Though they have been accused of being "grating" or "annoying" over the last two decades, the three stars of the '99 original are never less than totally convincing. They feel like real people in a terrible situation. The actors in Blair Witch feel like pretty actors assembled by a casting agent on loan from the CW. They don't seem like friends. They don't even really seem like acquaintances. They have no character traits, no wants or needs outside of "make a documentary" or "find my sister." As Adam Riske said, it's too easy to root for the witch.