Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the impact that The Blair Witch Project had on film, and popular culture, in general. An out-of-nowhere surprise hit that took the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, and then the rest of the world, by storm, the movie was a rough and tumble garage-band indie that cost as much as a car and made a 3000% profit worldwide, all because it was one of the first movies — the first things really — to make a massive zeitgeisty viral impact. In an era where “social media” wasn’t yet a term, where people may have lurked in dingy chatrooms but didn’t have the benefit of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to relentlessly share and dissect the cool thing of the moment, it turned into a word-of-mouth must-see phenomena, the grungy, black-of-midnight faux-documentary feel plunging unsuspecting people into an abject abyss of smeary digital-video hell. We forget now, but people actually thought the film was real, a snuff nightmare projected onto screens everywhere. The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found footage film, but it was the first one to make an impact; before that, the films were too indie or foreign — too small — to be noticed. But, thanks to the cultural sleight of hand of the filmmakers and the people over at the now-defunct distributor Artisan, this film, this ragged, undisciplined shard from the darkest recesses of hell, made people, for a second, believe.
We’ve had hundreds of found footage movies since, good and bad, from Paranormal Activity to, well, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, but none have come close to matching the jagged realism, the “am-I-really-watching-people-die?” authenticity of the first Blair Witch. Which is probably why the sequel, the ambitiously conventional Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, just avoided found footage altogether. That film, made by the great documentarian Joe Berlinger (in his one and only narrative feature), was a hokey slab of mall-Gothic teen gore, plunking a bunch of attractive, but dull, twentysomethings into a drab, nondescript warehouse, where they freak out over MTV-scary “spooky” visions while obsessing over the events of the original film. That film was disposable Halloween-weekend malarkey, but, while it was bad, one can’t deny the audacity of vision that at least propelled it: in a cheeky meta twist, the film acknowledged the original movie as a movie and made its characters fervent fans of the film, who plunge deep into the Burkittsville woods only to realize that the horrors may not be as fictional as they realized. Book of Shadows has something to say — though it’s never coherent enough to know, exactly, what it is — and it may have been a flop that killed its nascent franchise, but it was as bold and weird as failed film sequel could be.
It’s been 17 years since that epochal, game-changing moment, and we’re finally back in those godforsaken woods: Blair Witch is the third film in the franchise, and it resurrects the “this-is-really-happening” verite hook of the original (it all but forgets the sequel.) It’s been made by the great genre nostalgists Adam Wingard (director) and Simon Barrett (writer), who are the rare modern horror filmmakers who can make their synth-soaked retro Carpenter fetishes feel blazingly alive and new: they first made the woozy mumblecore-meets-serial-killer slasher drama A Horrible Way To Die and followed that up with the slyly comic home invasion classic You’re Next and what may be their best film: the genre mash-up The Guest, which was like Halloween by way of The Terminator.
If there was anyone who could make you excited for another trip to Maryland, it’s these two, and you expect to see what Blair Witch would look like as refracted through their lens. Disappointingly, the opposite seems to be true: this new film finds Wingard and Barrett bending themselves to the Blair Witch’s whims. Blair Witch 2016 is VERY much a sequel: it’s the same movie, except bigger, louder, more. James (James Alan McClune), the younger brother of the first film’s Heather, thinks he sees a video online that proves his sister is still, somehow, alive in those woods, and he gets his filmmaker friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) to document his journey to find her. Once again we follow a bunch of young people deep into the woods outside Burkittsville, but this time there are six of them, and this time they are model pretty, and they go through the same trials as before, only updated for our technology-is-everything era: they get lost (instead of losing a map, their GPS goes on the fritz); they find piles of rocks; they awaken to those gnarly, iconic stick figures of the damned; they hear things go bump, crash, bang in the night (the bumps this time are loud enough to give Hans Zimmer shivers.) This isn’t so much Adam Wingard’s take on the Blair Witch as it is a Blair Witch film made by some guy named Adam Wingard.
That’s not to say that this is a bad film, per se — just a safe one. Wingard and Barrett are too good of a filmmaking team to not make something that is at least watchable. Blair Witch is, at least, an effectively assaulting scare machine; the boo-startle jumps keep coming, especially as the film reaches its last act. Wingard and Barrett might sacrifice the first film’s subtlety and creeping sense of dread, but there’s no denying that they know how to stage a perfectly execute shock-scare. Even as Blair Witch treads over familiar terrain, it manages to build a heady sense of momentum, and it really comes alive as it approaches the climax. It’s here that the duo really pop and deliver the goods; its as fun as anything they conjured in You’re Next. Of course they go back to that dilapidated house in woods — they want to hit all the same beats, after all — but they turn the entire sequence into a crackerjack fun house spookshow, the fuzzy digital camerawork and maze-like layout of the house hiding creepy things around corners, and they actually show the Witch this time, lurching out of the darkness like a howling, long-limbed nightmare demon; Wingard, smartly, shows it in jagged, brief, hallucinatory glimpses that make “her” seem all the more horrifying and unnatural.
If only the rest of the film had such èlan. Blair Witch doesn’t just rehash it’s own predecessor, but dozens of found footage films that were made since then: the lush woodland setting, the blandly bickersome doomed-youth cannon fodder, the jittery-migraine camerawork. By now, it’s safe to say that we’ll never again see a found footage film that has the same kind of dark-side-of-the-damned, this-is-really-happening believability as the first The Blair Witch Project. And it’s a tad unfair to expect even a filmmaking team as gifted as Wingard and Barrett to give us a found footage film that delivers the shock of the new. But they could also have given us a tad more imagination. Blair Witch is entertaining, and even scary — but it’s also safe. It feels like footage we’ve found too many times before.