Film Review: BLAIR WITCH
Starring James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Simon Barrett
Produced by Keith Calder, Roy Lee, Steven Schneider, Jessica Wu
Executive Producers, Ed Sanchez, Daniel Myrick, Gregg Hale
Cinematography by Robby Baumgartner
Edited by Louis Cioffi
Music by Adam Wingard
The unfortunate, misguided “Blair Witch,” a haphazard sequel to the hugely-successful “The Blair Witch Project” from 1999, is a disappointment, a rehash of the same old story, in the same old found-footage style—which quickly became cliched and tired about twelve years or so ago—and the overall production of the sequel tragically, completely falls apart during an all-too-familiar, unoriginal series of haunted-house and dark-woods scenes during a tired, idea-less third act.
The problems with “Blair Witch” are many, at many levels, but most glaringly, the film offers nothing new, inventive or original in its production, direction, script or story and plot lines. As the film progresses, it’s apparent it’s the same story–with many of the same tired plot elements–as the first film, which was released seventeen years ago, down to some very similar scenes, dialogue, shots, story elements and plot twists. In the end, what should have been a fresh, new-style look back at a groundbreaking film with a then-somewhat-inventive found footage style– with a fresh angle itself, with more period historical flashbacks to flesh out a thin story–ends up simply being more of the same, and even more of the same, without much-needed inventiveness, uniqueness or originality on any level.
The film is a bit of a storytelling misfire, and was obviously in dire need of a complete script re-write and a director who could take that re-written script in a completely new direction while still paying homage to the original’s style, inventiveness, story, plots, characters and horror atmosphere. However, as noted, that doesn’t happen as it should have happened—the film is so familiar to the original, actually, in terms of basic story, plot, characters, scenes and style, it ends up seeming to be more like outtakes and lost footage from the original shoot. That’s not what a “Blair Witch” released in 2016 should be.
It’s an original story by now, but just to recap: The original film, “The Blair Witch Project,” was, through a slight miracle of timing, emerging cultural zeitgeist, emerging new technology, creativity, inventiveness, talent, fresh ideas, fresh approaches to filmmaking and storytelling—and a wholly, slyly and brilliantly creative and inventive marketing, advertising, promotional and media relations campaign that simply created a new urban legend that appeared to be a long-standing urban legend but actually wasn’t—latched onto a late ‘90s, early 2000s cultural, social and technology landscape, audience and demographic that wholly embraced the film’s modern urban legend, fake mythos and shaky, nervy, attention-deficit-addled found-footage filmmaking style. The film—made on a shoestring low-budget that was either $20,000, $30,000 or $60,000, depending on what source, resource, story or person is cited—ended up grossing more than $248,639,099, according to BoxOfficeMojo. The film was also a cultural phenomenon, becoming an early internet, social media, computer and geekworld hit, along with its box office success. The film was alternately praised and criticized for its improvisational style, its general sparseness (intentional and a factor of the film’s very low production budget), its thin story, plot and characterizations (again, a criticism that is even more valid in the new, 2016 film), and the very filmic aspect that made the movie so original, its shaky, nervy, then-progressive found-footage style. “The Blair Witch Project,” produced, directed and written by D.C.-area filmmakers Ed Sanchez, Daniel Myrick and Gregg Hale, would become a huge success at every level.
However, as it often happens in popular culture, the film’s found-footage filmmaking style—meaning, the film told the story from the point-of-view of only film and video that was captured by the characters through their own cameras, as they were filming themselves in the woods—was quickly copied, duplicated, pirated, stolen and then even parodied and satirized within a few fast years. By 2004, when YouTube exploded, and the internet, websites, cell phones and laptops had taken over certain aspects of popular culture, the found-footage style of filmmaking was already overdone, tired, cliched and exhausted. The style that Sanchez, Myrick and Hale helped popularize—they didn’t create it, of course; they just twisted it here and there and popularized it anew, along with that inventive marketing and backstory—was basically over and done within five years.
The story told in the original film centered on a group of college-aged young adults who in 1994 venture into the fictional Black Hills Forest—or, as some call it in the new film, the Black Hills Woods—in Maryland to investigate the urban legend of Elly Kedward, who was apparently accused of being a witch in the fictional town of Blair, Md., which became Burkittsville, Md. (that history is also made up) and was brutally, savagely, tried, convicted, tortured and left outside to die deep in the Black Hills Forest in 1785. Centuries later, Rustin Parr, a Burkittsville-area resident, horribly kidnapped and killed eight children—and he told investigators that he was possessed by Kedward’s spirit, which was apparently seeking revenge in the most horrific manner. As the students venture deeper in the woods—by now sated with not only the urban legends about Kedward and Parr but also other similar local spooky legends—their expedition devolves into a series of increasingly strange, scary, frightening, unexplainable paranormal phenomena that eventually kills all of them. (Note for those who still get the real life aspects and the filmic aspects confused, even in 2016: In real life, there was no Blair, Md.; there was no Blair Witch urban legend—the filmmakers created that; there is no Black Hills Forest or Black Hills Woods in Burkittsville, Md.; there is a Black Hill Regional Park in Montgomery County, Md.; no people ever disappeared in the woods investigating supernatural stories; and the actual paranormal phenomenon that Burkittsville is actually known for—Spook Hill–one of those optical illusion gravity hills where cars seem to go uphill by themselves when put in neutral—is never mentioned in any of the Blair Witch films.)
Alas, again, the “Project” story is basically the same story in “Blair Witch”—now being released seventeen years later. In the new film, James Donahue, the brother of Heather Donahue, one of the people who originally went missing in the 1994 expedition, leads a new group of college-aged young adults into the woods—to find out what happened to his sister. Along the way, James and his three friends meet up with some goofball, sketchy locals who promise to lead them to a spot related to Heather’s disappearance. Once these six people enter the woods, the exact same things start to happen to them that happened to the other people in the original film—similarly, repeatedly, unoriginally. Weird stick-and-string things appear in the woods, time shifts, weird noises are heard, things go bump in the night, more weird noises, time and direction are altered, a strange, phantom house appears, people are injured, people go crazy—and everyone ends up getting killed. That’s not a spoiler—because there’s nothing to spoil. It’s evident during the film that no one is going to get out of the woods alive, because the story doesn’t provide any manner for anyone to escape—they’re trapped, and it’s only a matter of time because whatever-it-is gets them killed. It’s never clear—in either film or the wayward, forgettable 2000 sequel—just what it is that’s terrifying and killing all of these young adults who happen to keep going into the woods, despite what common sense, intelligence and organizational and mental health skills and smarts would counter against. Is it Elly Kedward, Rustin Parr, Freddie Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Ed Gein, the children of the corn, the ghost of James Whale, something else? It’s not clear—and that worked in the original film. That gimmick doesn’t work in the newer film—because it’s just simply the same old thing again.
As James and his friends continue to try and fight the whatever-it-is-in-the-woods, the story, plot and film implode into literally just a tired, cliched and even non-suspenseful series of shots of either people running through the woods with dimming flashlights, people running through hallways of a run-down spookhouse in the woods, lights also dimming, or people crawling through claustrophobic underground tunnels, lights also again dimming. Everyone’s lights are dimming—an unintentional symbol of the overall film’s concurrent dimming. As the flashlights continue to fade, the film also continues to fade. There are only so many sequences of people running through woods, run-down houses, tunnels, crawlspaces, attics, basements, enclosed spaces, warehouses or anything else in the dark without much light that filmgoers can take through the decades—it’s old, tired, cliched, already. There are only so many jump scares that people can take in horror movies—it’s old, tired, cliched, already. And how many times can people so moronically ignorant and stupid and venture into paranormal, supernatural places without proper preparation, planning, organization, gear or communication devices—when they know that they’re going into dangerous places where people previously vanished, most likely murdered? It’s old, tired, cliched, already. In one completely nonsensical scene in “Blair Witch,” for example, a girl with an injured foot and leg stumbles through the forest, sick, tired and going crazy, and she sees a downed, damaged drone high up in a tree. For some unexplainable reason, she climbs the tree to reach the drone—in the dark, injured, sick and crazed. Then she falls out of the tree. The sequence makes no sense, even in the context of a horror film—it just doesn’t work. Similarly, a subplot involving the sketchy locals also doesn’t connect work on a scare level—that subplot just muddies things to the point of weakening the story.
“Blair Witch” brings nothing new to the film series, to horror films, or to the Blair Witch mythos or legend.
Here, then is what “Blair Witch” should have been: The film—released seventeen years after the original—first should not have used any found-footage style—none. As noted, that found-footage style was old about twelve years ago. The new Blair Witch should have started with a grizzled Robert Englund playing Rustin Parr, in jail, recounting to an investigator or reporter his reign of terror and how he was possessed by Kedward. Then, the film should have segued into the 1700s, telling the life story of Kedward—her early life, her family, her descent into madness or a medical ailment that was mistaken for witchcraft, and her subsequent biased, criminal persecution and execution. What drove Kedward crazy or sick? Why did the townspeople charge, convict, try, torture and kill her? How did Kedward come to haunt those woods, and why—was it revenge, or was she actually a witch?! Imagine Mila Kunis or Alicia Vikander as a young, bewitching Kedward. Imagine Jeremy Irons as a somewhat crazed, puritanical Blair town leader who leads the charge against Kedward. Throw in a cast of Kedward family members and townspeople. All of this amid a beautifully-constructed 1700s period set deep in woods that are obviously very similar to the modern-day Black Hils. And, of course, the entire proceedings—Kedward’s life, the townspeople’s fears of witchcraft and Kedward’s persecution—all occur amid an increasingly eerie, spooky aura of suspense and possibly supernatural and paranormal suggestions. Bookend the film with Parr, telling his story and, with a nod to other classic low-budget horror films, right at the end, Parr escapes the jail, running straight back into the Black Hills Forest.
That should have been the new “Blair Witch” film.
Instead, all filmmakers can expect to find in “Blair Witch” is more of the same, and it’s not well-executed, well-done or well-coordinated more of the same. The acting, direction, story and overall production want to be the same as the original, and it is, but on a tired, non-original level, and this approach just doesn’t work.
One aspect of “Blair Witch” does work, however—the sound. The overall sound, sound effects, sound editing, sound effects editing and foley work—actually using various items and resources to create respective sounds—is exceptional. At certain times during the film, various sounds explode from the screen, creating genuine scares, spooks and screams—and they were not only well-created, they are well-presented, arriving at precisely-calculated times and instances that do create genuine scares. Snaps of sticks and rocks and leaves; winds and gusts filled with supernatural howls and moans and groans and snickers and whispers; tent zippers being hurriedly unzipped; feet stumbling on unknown terrain; unseen things running or flying through the woods; trees and bushes rustling oddly and frighteningly; and possibly-familiar and non-familiar voices whispering, calling, laughing, seducing, enchanting through the deep, dark woods. All presented loudly, clearly, excellently. The sound work and sound crews on “Blair Witch” deserve kudos for their master-class work in sound in this film.
Alas, sound alone cannot make a quality film, and, as noted, “Blair Witch” collapses under its overbearing desire to emulate and pay homage to “The Blair Witch Project”—from seventeen years ago. What should have been a fresh take and modern update and interpretation on a classic urban legend film that once slyly invaded popular culture and cultural zeitgeist at a specific time, place and era sadly ends up bringing nothing new to the tale, the legend, the film series.
It’s past the time to finally leave the Blair Witch legend and the Black Hills Forest alone, film-wise and legend-wise, and let those past ghosts—of the original film in real life and of the supposed ghosts in the films—live out their lives in their respective filmic homes and urban legend fantasy lands. Just as scores of horror films continually warn, sometimes it’s best to just leave some stories, creatures, characters, ghosts, witches and paranormal and supernatural phenomenon and some deep, dark woods alone. Let them rest at peace in their respective worlds. Don’t go there, I’d turn back if I were you, some things are better left alone, you don’t know or understand what’s out there, don’t go into the woods—these are repeated warnings of good advice that apply to real-life and fictional characters—and to most horror filmmakers. Film fans can only hope that one day, filmmakers will finally start to heed the advice that the local townsfolk continually tell their characters: Just leave things alone, just let it be–and just move on down the road to something else and someplace else.