Back Into the Woods: Blair Witch Review

It was the sequel nobody asked for.

When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it became one of the most successful independent movies of all time.  It was a fictional documentary about the exploits of three film students who decide to make a movie about the legend of the Blair Witch.  They travel to a small town in Maryland to interview the locals and gather information, but things go wrong when they decide to take a hike in the woods in search of more possible information.  They get lost, spooky things happen, someone disappears, and so on.

The Blair Witch Project was, in many ways, the antithesis to the standard Hollywood formula.  With a low-budget and small crew, it couldn’t rely on special effects to scare the audience so it went for a more nuanced approach.  Even the way it was promoted was different, being marketed primarily through the internet.  This actually sparked debates over whether the film was real or fake, which gave it an air of mystery that would be impossible with today’s information saturated world.

Fast-forward to 2016, and we have a big-budget Hollywood sequel to an independent horror movie called Blair Witch.  And how did it turn out?

Well…it’s okay.

My main issue with Blair Witch is that, instead of taking what made its predecessor so influential and expanding upon that, the movie takes the tried and true Hollywood route when it comes to making a horror movie.  And you know what that means right?

Jumpscares.  Lots and lots of jumpscares.

Spooky loud bangs in the night?  Check.  Loud popping noises when the camera is turned off or cuts to a new scene?  Check.  Someone suddenly appearing in front of the camera causing the camera person to scream?  Oh you better believe they check that one-off the list.  They even pull that trick twice in a row at one point, which prompts one of the characters to mutter “stop doing that” as some sort of in-joke.  And speaking of annoying jumpscare tactics, there’s even a point near the beginning where the movie cuts from a quiet living room scene to a suddenly loud nightclub.

YEAH GET DOWN AND PARTY!  FEEL THOSE PULSING BEATS!  ARE YOU SCARED YET?!

Honestly all these tactics did was make me all the more aware that I was watching a movie set up to try to scare me.  Part of the reason The Blair Witch Project did so well was that it didn’t spend its time trying to convince you its scary.  It crept along at a slow pace with very little happening throughout.  Blair Witch on the other hand throws out jumpscares like they’re candy.  And I get why.  They’re attempting to keep the audience on edge by never letting them feel safe.  But the thing is, so many of these scare moments are too telegraphed.  You can tell when they’re about to happen.  Moments before that cut to the nightclub scene, two of the characters are asked whether or not they believe the stories about the Blair Witch.  They simply stare at each other in silence for a few seconds before it jumps to the nightclub.  And it’s painfully obvious they were going to attempt something like that because it’s the Hollywood definition of horror.

This artificial feeling extends to the way the movie is shot as well.  Much like the first movie, Blair Witch is presented as a found footage movie.  And for the first twenty minutes to a half hour you can tell that the movie is shot by professionals who are trying too hard to look like amateurs.  The “wobbly cam” is strong with this one, if you catch my drift.

Now all this isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have any scare factor at all.  I will admit there were a couple of moments that genuinely sent a chill up my spine, such as when one of the characters hears disembodied screaming or something echoing through the trees moments before he’s chased by an unseen entity.  I thought that was rather effective, instilling a sense of dread in the audience before dropping the hammer on them.  But moments like that were too few, sandwiched in between far too frequent “BOO GOT YA” moments.  I mean this is the woods in the dead of night.  That’s creepy enough on its own.  Throw in sounds that echo like crazy and can go for miles, and you’ve got a recipe for nightmares.  One of the characters even mentions how sound can travel a long distance in this area, but the movie never really takes advantage of it.

The same kind of thing happens with the story.  It has a solid, interesting premise and introduces a concept that could have added a whole new layer to the story, but the movie seems too concerned with trying to frighten the audience.  The story follows James Donahue, the brother of Heather Donahue who was one of the characters in the original movie.  James finds a video clip online which seems to show an image of Heather even though she disappeared twenty years ago.  Not knowing what to think, James gathers his friends Peter, Lisa, and Ashley and they all make a trip to the woods where she disappeared.  Tagging along with them are Talia and Lane, the two locals who found the video James watched and posted it online.

Now this is actually a great premise that could have been used to add new layers to the Blair Witch story.  The problem is that instead of expanding on things, the movie feels like a soft reboot of the original.  It follows a lot of the same plot points and does a lot of the same things.  There are some new tidbits here and there, but the movie doesn’t dwell on them long enough for it to really matter.  For example, later on the group splits into two separate groups.  After wandering for a day, one group finds themselves back at their campsite somehow and decides they have to spend the night once more.  Well during the night the other group stumbles into them again, only somehow instead of being one afternoon it’s been five days for them since they last saw each other.  It’s a really weird and creepy detail, but everything goes to hell too soon afterwards for that detail to really matter.  And this seems to be true for all the new stuff they added in this one.

Despite all this, I genuinely enjoyed the second half of the movie.  Once things got going, the movie kept up a decent focus on action and the weird stuff to remain interesting throughout the rest of its 89 minute running time.  It no longer relies on cheap scares and actually focuses on the struggle of the characters to survive.  There’s one particular sequence inside a cramped underground tunnel that actually makes you feel for one of the characters as she starts breaking down and crying while she’s alone in the darkness.  It’s actually a powerful moment and it makes you pause.

In the end, this movie definitely earns the label of “mixed bag”.  There are some really good elements in the movie and it has good writing in parts, but the obnoxious jumpscares and overly vague nature of the story leaves a lot to be desired.  When the movie ended, I didn’t feel like I was any closer to understanding what happened to James’ sister or what the Blair Witch actually is.  Instead, all I got were a bunch of cheap scares and story elements that weren’t fleshed out enough to matter.  I guess the thing the frustrates me most about the movie is that it had such great potential to be an amazing follow-up to a classic horror movie, but it squandered that potential and became the same thing you can find in pretty every other horror movie in theaters these days.

Here’s the bottom line: if you’re looking for a movie with cheap thrills, Blair Witch certainly has you covered.

If you’re hoping for something deeper, I would look elsewhere.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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6 thoughts on “Back Into the Woods: Blair Witch Review

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