Monday, September 19, 2016

Review: Blair Witch

by Patrick Bromley
Remind me to stay out of the woods.

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.
The major connection to the first film is that this onetime-secret sequel (it was announced as The Woods before being revealed as a Blair Witch movie at this summer's San Diego Comic Con) focuses on James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of Heather Donahue's character from The Blair Witch Project. Though he was only four years old when she disappeared in the woods, he has been obsessed with finding out what happened to her for his whole life. After receiving a video of what he believes is footage of Heather, he and two friends (Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott) travel into the woods with a student making a documentary (played by Callie Hernandez). So once again we get a group of young people going into the woods to learn something about the Blair Witch, once again documenting everything on camera, once again getting lost and seeing things go from bad to worse to scary.

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.
Sadly, that's not the case, and had Wingard and Barrett's names not appeared in the credits of Blair Witch I would have no reason to suspect they had anything to do with the movie. There are a handful of attempts to do something slightly different with the sequel, but the choices rarely work. It's clear that Barrett wants to add new elements to the Blair Witch mythology but can't be bothered to explain any of it; while the ideas are intriguing and I don't demand that every single thing need to be paid off, just dropping them into the narrative and then moving past them makes Blair Witch most closely resemble a Season Four episode of Lost. The other new elements are primarily surface-level stuff like outfitting everyone in the cast with a camera (including special earpiece cameras and one drone) so that the film has much more extensive coverage and can cut from angle to angle. If the goal with this creative choice is to make Blair Witch less like a found footage movie and more like a conventional narrative film, why not just make it a conventional narrative film? Instead it bends over backwards to break the constraints of found footage aesthetics while still feeling beholden to the format only because, well, that's how they made the original Blair Witch Project.

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.
I had a really strange weekend of movie watching. I saw the new movies from two of my favorite contemporary horror directors and found both to be exercises in creative wheel-spinning, while the movie I watched from a director I'd more or less given up on turned out to be sweet and fun and personal. It's not just a function of expectations, either, but rather the difference between a movie with the filmmaker's heart in it and those without. I'm positive that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett wanted to make a good movie with Blair Witch, but their reverence for the original inhibits them from putting their own heart into this sequel. The result is an impersonal rehash -- another subpar found footage movie to be thrown onto the pile of subpar found footage movies. I look forward to Wingard and Barrett returning to original work...right after they put out these next two remakes.

12 comments:

  1. I saw a sneak preview of this a week and a half ago, representatives from lions gate were dressed in camping gear and escorted us to our seats in a darker than usual theater. As a huge fan of the original and an even bigger fan of Barrett and Wingard, I could not have been more excited for this movie. Boy was it a huge let down. I agree with everything you said in your review Patrick. The characters in the original aren't well developed but I like the 2 guys and Heather is annoying but she is a character and when the shit hit the fan in that movie I cared about what was happening to them. There was a sense of dread in that film that is totally lost in this new one. They turned it into every other shitty found footage movie that's out there right now, which is the last thing I expecting from these 2 guys. By the 12th time something scary was supposed to happen and it was just a person coming into frame trying to get a jump scare I started getting really pissed off. People complain about the camera work in the first one being nauseating, this one is 10 times worse because they keep bouncing around from camera to camera to camera and it really gave me a headache. The flying camera was a cool concept but they did nothing with it, at all. My imagination created way scarier things when I watched the original than this one threw at me when they actually try to show you stuff. Man what a huge disappointment. I feel bad shitting on it cause I love wingard and barrett and I wanted this to be a success but I just didn't like any of it. Great review Patrick.

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  2. Yeah, but if this movie had come out in 2000 we'd have all LOST OUR MINDS. Because what the fuck is a drone?!

    I didn't hate the movie - it was more or less working on the crowd I was with, even when we were sometimes laughing AT the umpteenth "I could have let you know I was coming but thought I'd just come up behind you and yell in your face!" jump scare - but yeah, my main feeling was one of growing disappointment that there was none of the Wingard-Barrett magic I've come to expect.

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  3. I had only watched the original once, back when it was brand new, and had hated it. I wanted to be prepared for the new movie, so I decided to not only rewatch the original, but to see all the other pieces of watchable media (no comics, no books) that made up the "franchise." This meant three accompanying mockumentaries to the first film, the sequel and its accompanying mockumentary, and, most surprisingly, a comedic webseries from the creative team of the original about shooting a fictional third Blair Witch movie. I realized two things afterward. First, none of the pieces that make up the franchises are enjoyable to sit through: the original is grainy and headache-inducing, the mockumentaries are deliberately dull and ugly, and the webseries is shot on consumer DV in the director's backyard. This made the overblown sound design and whiplashy style of the new one feel more of a piece with the other parts. Second, I had so much background now that I could appreciate the "rules" of the franchise; the BW franchise is unique in horror in that so much important information is given through channels that aren't the primary movies. This perspective made me appreciate how part of enjoying a horror franchise is in savoring the differences between the installments and observing the way it evolves in the interest of appeasing changing markets, and how Blair Witch has managed to become a full-fledged franchise almost invisibly by beefing up its mythology primarily via channels that aren't official franchise "installments." I guess I'm largely saying that to me, Blair Witch didn't feel like a third installment in a series, it felt like an eighth, and for an eighth franchise entry, it's pretty damn good.

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  4. I really expected Wingard and Barrett to be better than some of the awful clichés on display in this movie.

    "Oh cool, two African American leads! In a lesser movie they'd be expendable so we can focus on the white people but I'm sure this movie-- Oh, they're dead."

    "The witch's limbs were stretched with heavy rocks when she was killed? If this weren't an Adam Wingard movie I'd expect one of those overplayed long-limbed Mama creatures but surely-- oh, there it is."

    And what a letdown of an ending. You finally start to root for the heroine, it seems like she's going to be the only one to make smart choices and then oh never mind, she turned around and the movie's over. Bye.

    A completely pointless movie, but I'd be lying if I said that moment when one of the stick figures was snapped didn't freak me out. (Since watching the movie I've found out that bit was in all the trailers. Way to ruin one of the few effective/surprising moments.)

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  5. Do you think seeing this movie will adversely effect your enjoyment of the first one? I hold the original near and dear to my heart so I would be willing to skip this one altogether if that makes sense...

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    1. It actually made me appreciate the first one more, so I think you're fine.

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  6. It's insulting that this movie is still in theaters :-)

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  7. I get everyone's frustration with the jump scares, but I was kind of indifferent to it.

    I think Adam and Simon were kind of in a Catch 22 because of the format. Structurally they were backed into a corner, and I'm sure they felt some pressure that there had to be some scary beats every some-odd minutes, but they needed to space out how much damage they could do to the characters, so the jump scares won out.

    But they followed those jump scares with some smart scares. The tent flying up into the air was great. The stick figure being used as a makeshift voodoo doll, that was cool. The Lovecraftian idea of making them trapped in perpetual night, that was cool. Lisa maneuvering through the ductwork? That killed me.

    Lisa's idea of holding out the camera to get a glimpse of the witch through the screen, sort of taking a page out of Clash of the Titans when Perseus uses his shield to see Medusa, I liked that. I mean, it was absolutely the last shot of [REC]/Quarantine, but it worked for me.

    The centipede in that girl's leg was nasty.

    When the movie was over, the house lights in my theater didn't come on during the end titles, and I tend to stick around and watch the credits. But that movie had me in its grip. Whenever somebody got up and headed for the exit, I was whipping around to make sure who they were and if they were leaving.

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  8. Great post. If you look at this movie as a stand-alone film, it works. The only problem is that it's a carbon copy of the original; it brings nothing new to audiences, and I think that's my biggest problem with this film :(

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    1. I wouldn't say carbon copy. It repeats some, not all, of the same beats. And then it takes some of the same beats and takes them a bit further. I do think it has some new things to show -- not a lot, but some, and that was enough for me.

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  9. The minute I thought the claustrophobic scene was effective, turns out it was just pointless and led to nowhere and was just there bc someone said "you know what'd be scary?"

    ...

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    1. That's all well and good, but what's it supposed to lead to otherwise? It's not like anyone goes into that house and lives to tell about it.

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