One of the coolest and most unexpected trailers to hit this year surprised audiences at San Diego Comic-Con, mainly because it was intentionally a misdirect. Lionsgate was promoting a film titled THE WOODS. I actually remember seeing the trailer at their booth on preview night (with that title on it), and it looked like an atmospheric horror movie set in a forest with young victims who likely didn’t stand a chance. Well, the title was an intentional fake, and it’s actually a sequel to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, who recently delivered THE GUEST, have made this new film which is simply called BLAIR WITCH – the third entry to follow in the popular horror franchise that started in 1999. The new cast includes Valorie Curry, Callie Hernandez, James Allen McCune, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson and Corbin Reid. While I do think THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was an interesting and effective experiment for its time (I made the mistake of watching it for the first time at home alone right before bed), we’ve seen so many similar films in recent years, one wonders if this type of story can still hold water. But the recent success of movies like THE WITCH may indicate now is the best possible time to resurrect the idea, and I also had tremendous faith in the team of Wingard and Barrett… sorry to say this one just didn’t hit for me.
The new movie opens like the original, telling us through text that what we’re about to see was cobbled together from various tapes and footage found in the woods the kids in the first movie tried to explore. I’ve always wondered, if everyone that goes into those woods is doomed to a horrible fate, who keeps finding these lost tapes? Oh well… the new footage is said to be taken from 2014, where a group of young adults decided to track down the missing Heather we saw in the first film. Her younger brother James (James Allen McCune) has decided to journey with his pals into the area she disappeared in, all after being sent footage from a tape supposedly found near that area. Just before making the journey, the group meet with a Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), a young goth couple of YouTube conspiracy nuts – the same two that sent them the tape which sparked the trip. Lane and Talia unexpectedly insist on tagging along for the trip, a pairing that doesn’t mesh well. After spending a tense night in the forest, the group begins to argue and split up, and strange things start to happen making all of them wonder if this trip was a huge mistake.
One thing the new BLAIR WITCH did rather successfully is remind me how much I hate “found footage” movies. Even with the obviously improved technology with the cameras used in the story, there’s still so much shaky cam action that I found myself closing my eyes at least four or five times to avoid getting nauseous. Director Adam Wingard cuts back and forth a lot between actor points of view, probably intending to keep the pace intense, but at times it’s just frustrating to look at. To me the biggest problem with found footage movies is they never seem to focus on what you really want to see, only giving you glimpses just before having the subject run frantically while shaking the hell out of the screen you’re watching. The actors here all try to play things naturally, and for the most part feel authentic and genuine, but none of them are particularly likable. Even James Allen McCune, playing off the idea of being the brother to the doomed Heather in the original, never seems to find any qualities that would make us want to see him succeed. Perhaps the strongest of the performers is Callie Hernandez as “Lisa”, who by the end seems to be the only smart one in the group, even when they’ve all gone a little too far down the beaten path.
The directing and writing duo of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett really wowed me with THE GUEST, which was a fantastic low-budget thriller with an 80s flare. As previously mentioned, I was excited to know they were taking on this sequel to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, as I’ve really enjoyed their previous work. Sadly, this installment really doesn’t offer anything terribly new, or at least not anything fans of the original wouldn’t expect to see. There’s some slightly more glossy effects here and there, better sound design to be sure, and the innovations with portable cameras make the action a little easier to see, but the basic narrative is about the same as the first movie. It’s so similar I found myself feeling like this was a missed opportunity in many ways. Movies like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY have tried to expand the scope of the story with each film, sometimes doing things you really don’t expect or see coming. But BLAIR WITCH seems content to just give us more of the same. The few times weird things come up in the film (like a bodily injury getting infected and appearing to possibly have something inside of it) are never properly expanded upon or explained, they’re just there to add a creepy layer I guess. Probably the most interesting aspect of this story is the concept of time shifting when people separate – meaning some folks feel like a day has passed, where others with feel like they’ve been stuck in the woods several days – and again, this is never explained. And there’s enough forced jump scares (like someone appearing suddenly in frame to force the audience into a moment of fright) to make even the most passionate horror fans feel a little overly pandered to. If this is meant to start a new series of sequels following the same idea, I can only hope the next installment finds a way to deliver something a little less familiar.