In Theaters: BLAIR WITCH

I was a young teen when The Blair Witch Project hit theaters in the summer of 1999. I remember going to a Saturday matinee screening with my mother and brother and seeing a line out the door of the theater, a rarity for matinee screenings in the normally docile suburbs of Reading, PA. The only movies that might have attracted lines like that were midnight screenings or the occasional blockbuster, but never a horror film and certainly not a low-budget film like The Blair Witch Project. Normally, the only reaction you could expect with certainty was a stern side-eye from the elderly ticket taker if you were walking into a movie like Stigmata or Lake Placid. I got a lot of those.

That balmy Saturday afternoon, however, the crowd was buzzing. There was talk that this movie “was real” — we were about to watch “real footage” of some college students who had gone missing in the woods of Maryland. The location of the film was close enough to register with people, but also far enough that no one could easily question its veracity. The movie’s website (which, sadly, is no longer active in its original form) didn’t help matters. It contained fake news reports, fabricated interviews, and fictionalized historical information so convincing that the residents of these quiet Pennsylvania suburbs legitimately believed a group of kids had disappeared.

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I’m older now, by 17 years to be exact, and the anticipation and glee I felt going into seeing The Blair Witch Project wasn’t there when I attended a preview screening of its “official” sequel, Blair Witch. It was certainly a hot August evening when I saw the film, so that hadn’t changed. But, this time around, I knew this film to be “fake” before I even set foot in the theater, and so did the rest of audience. Or maybe it was the fact that we were attending a screening in Philadelphia, a place far more jaded and cynical than Reading? We throw batteries at Santa Claus in Philadelphia. Or maybe still it was the fact that age had worn me down and I’d lost my belief in magic? I’d seen The Blair Witch Project as a teen, that period between the certainty of childhood, when all things imagined can be real, and the uncertainty of adulthood, when nothing is.

While all of this may be true, there was still something off about Blair Witch as a film. The magic was gone, but not for any of the reasons I listed above. I recently rewatched The Blair Witch Project for the sake of comparison, to see if it still holds up. It does. It’s a film built on an austere economy. It never reveals more than it has to, and in doing so, it is able to wring suspense out of the most mundane of scenarios. A pile of rocks. Bundled twigs. The ruffling of leaves. These are all things we genuinely come to fear as the film picks up pace. And that final shot? One of the few truly brilliant moments in 20th-century American horror cinema. More than all of this, The Blair Witch Project is shot in a way which presents everything happening on-screen as plausible. Watching the film, you get the sense that it could be a witch but it could just as soon be a serial killer skulking through the woods and stalking the three leads.

Blair Witch doesn’t find these moments but it’s also a film not particularly interested in finding them. Almost immediately we come to realize Blair Witch aims to achieve the opposite ends of its predecessor; it’s gory and graphic; its sound design places an emphasis on loud jump scares at the expense of forcing audiences to explore uncomfortably long passages of silence; and, more than anything else, it lacks the subtlety of the original. To make that clearer: it’s like every other found footage horror film we’ve seen since the original haunted theaters. It’s certainly admirable director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett wanted to take Blair Witch in a new direction but they do it at the expense of what made the original successful and they don’t even necessarily succeed on their own terms. The story is fraught with characters making inexplicably stupid decisions, and the film goes the way of showing too much which undercuts any suspense that might have been built early on.

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That isn’t to say Blair Witch isn’t without its merits. Wingard and Barrett have consistently proven themselves to be one of the smartest teams working in genre film today. You’re Next is a perfect hybrid of home invasion horror and pitch-black family comedy, and The Guest is one of the few modern approximations of John Carpenter that doesn’t feel like a lazy rehash. This carries through in Blair Witch as the duo find interesting moments amidst an otherwise messy film. Porting the original into the era of Web 2.0, the film frequently feels like it was edited to reflect the choppiness of a user-generated video on YouTube. The quick ADHD edits and digital glitches act as an interesting update on the original film’s lo-fi VHS aesthetic. The team also cleverly utilizes new technologies like drones and tablets to expand our view of the murky Maryland woods their characters stumble through.

The most striking of these moments comes toward the end of the film. James, the younger brother of the original film’s Heather Donahue, and, Lisa, his filmmaker girlfriend, are caught in a sea of endless night as the Witch is rapidly closing in. They’re scared and have only the scantest of clues what’s happening around them. It is here that Lisa has a complete emotional break and rather than portray it second-hand through James’ camera so we sympathize with her as outsiders, Wingard and Barrett attempt to submerge us into Lisa’s emotional state so we might empathize with her by experiencing her distress first-hand. They accomplish this by cross-cutting rapidly between failing digital technologies, some her own and others foreign. It approximates the feeling of a seriously bad acid trip as faces distort into glitchy shapes and patterns. It’s a conceit that has rarely been explored in found footage horror, using the medium itself to experience rather than to observe, and it’s the film’s most exciting segment. Had Blair Witch explored this territory more, it might have found its own voice beyond the gratuitous gore and jump scares. Unfortunately, it didn’t and the rest of the film feels like a by-the-numbers “modern” update on the original’s story: young filmmaker drags group into woods to explore legend, strange things happen to group, things end poorly for group.

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And that is Blair Witch‘s greatest sin: it never really establishes itself as being wholly different from the original outside of some window dressing. It attempts to expand on its source material in places by adding some more backstory and updating its tech to account for the attention-deficient cyborgs that are Millennials, but it’s still essentially telling the same story. It’s just louder, gorier, and crasser this time around. It fails to capture the magic of the original film, not because it doesn’t have the clever marketing campaign that made The Blair Witch Project “feel real,” but because the end result doesn’t find its own footing. Walking into that theater in 1999 only produced a sense of anticipation in me. It was the film itself that held the magic because it offered a (mostly) new way of exploring emotions like fear and dread in a format few had experienced and delivered on the promise of its marketing campaign by using that format in an inventive to deftly string viewers along until making its big reveal. Blair Witch approaches that territory in individual moments but never fully commits to the journey.

Rob Skvarla

Rob Skvarla

Robert Skvarla is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. His focuses include conspiracy culture, fringe communities, and new religious movements. He has written for Diabolique Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Philadelphia City Paper, and served as a programmer for the Cinedelphia Film Festival.
Rob Skvarla
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