Film Review: 'Blair Witch'

The sequel to "The Blair Witch Project" lacks the original's invention and sense of dread.

Sequels are always burdened by the reputation of their predecessors. For "Blair Witch," that predecessor casts a long shadow, which the film never manages to escape from. "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) was a sensation, something audiences had never seen before. More importantly, it was a horror film that had ideas and ambitions, something the genre often lacks. "Blair Witch" never manages to reach the heights of the original film, and doesn't even seem that interested in trying.

The film starts much like the original: a group of four friends are going into the Maryland woods to investigate a mystery. In "The Blair Witch Project," the three filmmakers set out to make a documentary about local legends, including the titular witch; they never return. James (James Allen McCune) is the leader of this new group and the younger brother of one of the missing filmmakers. After seeing footage online that was supposedly discovered in the woods where his sister disappeared, he gathers his friends to go searching for any trace of her.

The film errs from the start in the casting of James. McCune's face is a blank for most of the movie, and even when he tries to evoke fear or anger it just looks like a mask — none of the emotions ring true. McCune's presence is bland enough to be appropriate for a bowl of oatmeal, but not really a scary movie. Much of the blame lies with screenwriter Simon Barrett. Barrett has written well-received films for director Adam Wingard, including "You're Next" (2011) and "The Guest" (2014), but the writing here is painfully amateurish. We never learn much about James' relationship with his missing sister, nor do we learn much about what actually brings this group of friends together.

Accompanying James are his friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), as well as Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a filmmaker who wants to document James' search. She decks out the group in an updated setup of high quality digital cameras, hands-free cameras that look like Bluetooth earpieces, and even a drone. The headsets are a nice touch, as it allows the audience to look directly into the faces of the actors as they become increasingly frantic. There's something off-putting about seeing people directly in the center of the frame in moments of horror (something Stanley Kubrick understood about "The Shining").

Unfortunately, Wingard resorts to silly camera gimmicks to make the audience jump. Every time someone turns on a camera there's a ridiculously loud electronic burble. In a theater with a blasting sound system, the jolts caused by these extraneous noises are practically involuntary. Loud noise scares aren't going anywhere; they've become a part of the modern horror film. But this kind of constant audience abuse just reveals Wingard's limitations. In lieu of genuinely horrifying developments, he uses a constant stream of bangs to get the adrenaline flowing. It left me feeling exhausted, but not particularly frightened.

In addition to modern clichés, "Blair Witch" falls victim to worn out trends from decades past. Like so many horror films, both good and bad, the African-American characters, Peter and Ashley, are the first to start dying and also meet the most ignoble endings. It's doubly unfortunate because Peter and Ashley are also the most interesting of the core group. Peter has one of the few genuine-seeming displays of emotion when he recounts searching the woods years ago for James' sister. Peter and Ashley are also the only characters who really have any kind of chemistry between each other. And so of course they won't make it very far. When the film subjects one of those characters to a display of extreme body horror, it's obvious that "Blair Witch" has gone off the rails. That kind of horror might work in a movie like "Hostel," but it has no place in the universe where this film exists.

What's most disappointing about "Blair Witch" is that it could have been so much more ambitious. When the group's drone crashes after two uses, it shows a major lack of imagination. Every time the drone goes up it just confirms that the campers are deep within the woods, which is obvious. Horror films always have to explain why modern technologies don't work when the characters most need them, but Lisa the filmmaker just makes up an arbitrary distance beyond which the drone can't fly. It's a laughably obtuse way of making the drone unavailable when they most need it.

A more obvious lack of ambition comes from the film's climax, which is essentially a rehashing of the ending from "The Blair Witch Project," just made less interesting. Like the original film, "Blair Witch" ends up at an old house in the woods. The original house looked like it had fallen into disrepair, with rubble and plaster all over the floors and hand prints and indecipherable symbols drawn on the walls. It was the kind of place you might expect people to have been murdered in; I imagine there are many abandoned houses out in the woods that look quite similar (minus the creepy hand prints). "Blair Witch" takes the outline of that original house, but instead of something imbued with a frightening documentary reality, turns it into a regular old haunted house. Characters run through the house and get locked behind doors and chased by something that looks vaguely like a naked woman. If the sound effects had been changed slightly it would have looked more like a "Scooby-Doo" episode than a horror film. The ending of "The Blair Witch Project" was so disturbing because it refused to fall victim to these tropes.

That's not to say that "Blair Witch" is completely free of invention: there's a disturbing suggestion that the characters may be stuck in a never-ending night at one point, and toward the end the film it briefly alludes to the Orpheus myth. One of the characters also gets stuck in a hole underground at one point, which will be particularly frightening to anyone even mildly claustrophobic. But these flares of inspiration are few and far between.

The deck is already stacked against a sequel's success, but this one seemed like the rare film that might beat the odds thanks to its creative team. Instead, "Blair Witch" is a lifeless retread of one of the best films of the last 20 years.

Watch the trailer below:

Reach Staff Reporter Brian Marks here.