Movie Review: Blair Witch

I'm not a horror guy. That's actually been used as a point of criticism for me and my taste of movies. But it is true; I don't get into every horror movie out there. I do, however, consider myself a movie guy; I've seen thousands of films, studied most of them and try to look at each of them as critically and openly as I can. That said, it's time for me to take a look at the new Blair Witch.

(Also, spoilers ahead. While I don't give away any plot details, I may reference some specific events that some may like to discover for themselves. Just...consider yourself warned.)

Filmed under the code title The Woods, Blair Witch is a true sequel to the smash 1999 indie film, The Blair Witch Project. It follows James, a college student/paramedic, as he travels into the the woods in search of his sister, Heather, the main character from BWP. His journey is also the subject of his friend Lisa's film project, which summarily adds Blair Witch to the pile of recent "lega-sequels", movies that connect to a popular film franchise but act more as a reboot than a sequel (see also: Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World). Blair Witch is also filmed in the same found-footage style that Blair Witch Project popularized right before the turn of the century. 

I do have to say that I liked how director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett tie the latest film to the original. The hook of a brother searching for his missing sister was at least believable. It also added something fresh to the script, instead of simply completely rehashing the plot of the first film. Instead, they only partially rehashed it. 

That said, they took quite a few loyalties with the way the movie was filmed. The Blair Witch Project was unique in the sense that it was filmed with two cameras: a black-and-white film camera and a color DV. However, the cast of Blair Witch seem to have every sort of micro-digital camcorder under the sun at their disposal, as well as three extra people to help film (James' lifelong friend, Peter, and his girlfriend, Ashley, accompany them into the woods, as well as local backwater couple, Lane and Talia). So while the cast of BWP were limited in the footage that they could take, BW is able to get every angle possible, including aerials from a goddamn drone.

So, in essence, Blair Witch was shot as if it were a big budget film yet it still suffers from a lack of continuity. During a pivotal scene in which James attempts to calm Lisa, they stare into each other's eyes...by looking directly at the camera. Each of them are wearing ear-mounted micro-cameras, meaning if their faces were inches away from each other as they appear to be, their gazes should be right or left of center. Instead, they stare directly at the audience as they mug for the camera. For whose benefit is that? Was Wingard trying to show a sincere exchange between two characters or is he trying to get the audience to connect with the characters? If the latter, it failed miserably.

Another quibble I have happens at the end of the movie between the same characters wearing the same ear-mounted cameras. In the pouring rain, in which we get full, clear shots of both of them while Lisa's ears are completely shrouded in her hair. Am I being pedantic when I point this out? Perhaps, but these are details that shouldn't slip through the cracks in a Hollywood-backed film with a $5 million budget. Just call me picky.

But let me get to an actual critique of the movie itself. While BWP played with the fears of nature and the unknown, allowing audience's minds to run wild with their own explanation of events, Blair Witch hits almost every possible phobia it can. Fear of eternal darkness? Check. Fear of bugs? Check. Claustrophobia and fear of being buried alive? Check and check. Even voodoo gets a nod (though I have to admit I did appreciate the way that was handled). On top of that, it relies heavily on horror movie tropes; characters act as you'd expect them to in any other slasher-horror film. Even the aforementioned camera drone became a plot device when the time came for it. It was clear that the filmmakers held strongly to the cinematic ideal of Chekov's Gun, using items they've introduced as a way to keep the plot moving.

The only problem is they're making a horror movie that supposedly grounded in reality and that's not how reality works.

Yes, I understand that it's a movie and that movies aren't real. However, the success of the Blair Witch Project was mostly due to the viral marketing that surrounded it. The supplemental websites that spouted "newspaper" articles about the disappearance of the college kids supported the belief that the film was a true documentary. All of that helped to launch BWP to the success it attained. And not once did the movie feel like it needed to utilize every object shown on screen. (Could you imagine what they'd have done with that bag of Utz potato chips?) 

And this was one of the major pratfalls of Blair Witch; it relied on formula, whether it was the horror movie tropes or common filmmaking beliefs. In general, I'm OK with formulaic. There's a reason a formula becomes a formula; because they tend to work. But when you hitch a wagon to a movie like The Blair Witch Project and create a sequel that boils down to "if BWP were a slasher flick", then of course you're going to alienate some fans.

But that doesn't mean I'd consider Blair Witch to be a bad movie. While it does falter in many places, it was genuinely creepy. Early on, the movie relies on jump-scares, probably as a way to acclimate the audience to what's to come. (Not at all a defense; Wingard get points deducted for taking the lazy-man's way of getting a reaction.) But after we get past those, there was a definite aura of freakishness throughout the film that had my anxiety on high-alert. Even the moments that were telegraphed in large, neon letters managed to keep my pulse racing. 

Despite the few slips and falls Blair Witch takes as a whole, it is a scary film, in and of itself. I would think higher of the film if it remained The Woods and didn't continue the sage of The Blair Witch Project. But even BWP was slightly polarizing back in 1999; you either loved the movie for what it was or you hated it for what it wasn't. There were very few in-between opinions of that film. And I feel that that's what makes Blair Witch important. Finally, after 17 years, the people who hated The Blair Witch Project because it wasn't more visceral have a movie that appeals to them better. And I'm OK with that. I may be in the camp that loved The Blair Witch Project but I also enjoyed Blair Witch.

But then again, I'm not a horror guy.


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