Review: "Blair Witch (2016)"
It's impossible to review Adam Wingard's revival of the Blair Witch story without having a grasp of what the original "Blair Witch Project" not only meant at the time it came out but what effect it had on horror and Hollywood at large. The shadow that this new film stands under is pretty damn considerable.
The 1999 original birthed an entirely new genre of film. That alone merits some serious "film cred" as a heavy hitter both in and out of the genre. There was so much more that the original succeeded at, though: it gave hope to a generation of filmmakers with the drive (but not the cash) that you can make a movie on a modest budget and be as auteur as you want to be. It was also a pretty damn scary movie; a master class on tension building without a musical score, crazy effects, or even a damn monster on display. It worked best at its most subtle.
You have to be of a certain to really even appreciate what that first film accomplished. You had to have been there (and I don't mean crawling around in your fucking diapers or coloring on manila paper) to remember how loud the fucking buzz was on that movie. There were fake documentaries on multiple networks proclaiming the historical truth of The Blair Witch. When you first saw the movie there was no intro, no title sequence, no music, no hint of Hollywood. It was just like popping in a home video. It was, in short, pure fucking genius and a brilliant hoax wrapped around a little gem of a movie. For Christ's sake, they turned a $60,000 film into $240 MILLION in profit!! Enough said.
The 2016 version (which is a direct sequel and not a remake) steps out of that shadow aiming not for subtlety, and I believe that works greatly to its advantage. The abiding thought I walked away from this movie with was "damn, that was smart" and "well done/executed". Case in point: the camera usage.
We've all been there watching a found footage horror film, wondering why in the blue fuck they are still filming. You want to scream at the screen, be it big or small. I personally have no issue suspending my disbelief, as they say, and just rolling with it. I'm just glad the cameras are still rolling, after all. And yes.......I am an unabashed fan of found footage horror. I will not lie to you on that score. Some folks hate it with a burning passion. Some folks can't watch it because of the vertigo factor. I fucking love it. When it's bad it's bad, but when it's good it can be a thing of unrivaled realism and nastiness.
Their solution? GPS equipped, ear mounted cameras. They are a real thing. Essentially a GoPro that fits around the ear; they give you the true first person perspective and keep the action going without someone having to hold a camera while running. Boom!! "Why the fuck are you still fliming?" question rendered moot. Then they throw in the drone camera for the high angle shots, which I found to be criminally underused. That was a missed opportunity, in my opinion. Of course, you still had the traditional handheld just for old times' sake. Never goes out of style.
The story follows James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of snotty Heather from the original. His life has been haunted by the disappearance of his big sister in the Black Hills Woods. His friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), is making him the center of a documentary on the subject. James' childhood buddy, Peter (Brandon Scott), and Peter's girl, Ashley (Corbin Reid), are along for the ride to Burkittsville. A DV tape, found in the woods where Heather and the gang disappeared years before, is released online and now James has to go there for himself to see if he can find the infamous house (even though the woods were scoured thoroughly by hundreds of volunteers after the first disappearance). They stop in Burkittsiville and are joined (via some shady moves) by the guy who found the tape and his spaced-out girlfriend. They are locals and provide your backstory (in case you didn't remember the witch's tale, Rustin Parr, etc).
All of these trappings are familiar horror tropes, and I have absolutely zero problem with that. Adam Wingard (and writer Simon Barrett of the underrated "You're Next") do a fine job of giving you a group you can care about without being heavy-handed with it. I particularly liked McCune in the lead; he managed to keep that visibly haunted look without becoming a caricature. They're not rushing to bring you the horror but rather letting the setting and the naturally creepy look of "low-definition" video do the work for them. You see the same locations (i.e. Coffin Rock) as the original to keep the rhythm going. A subtle "accident" crossing the stream makes you stop and say "I don't know how that's going to be bad, but I know it will". Again- subtle and purposeful. This kind of horror is like good sex. You don't need to pound that ass right out of the gate. Take your time, man. Know when to hang back.
There was a even a good double-feint move in there that made me wonder when the shit was going to hit the fan, but of course the night has to come. And in Blair Witch country when the night comes your ass is in a very bad place.
Props have to go to the usage of sound effects at this point in the film. We've all had those moments in the dark (especially in the fucking wilderness) where every sound is a threat. Knowing the primal human fear, they turn the volume up to eleven on the shit going on outside those tents and just out of sight. You're still seeing nothing, but now your mind is starting to fill in the blanks. This is where the horror works best. There is a time and a place for the dripping horror to rise out of the shadows, but your mind will come up with the look and the feel that destroys you most quickly. Again, smart. Well done.
But, oh good brothers and sisters.........when the shit hits the fan it comes at you without a letup for the remainder of the film. It's when you realize that time and spatial reality are being fucked with (and to what degree they are being fucked with) that you start to realize how evil and powerful the Blair Witch really is. It's genuinely horrifying, that blood running cold feeling that transports you to the sweet spot that all good horror should get you to: that place where you say "I'm so fucking glad that's not me".
I'm giving fair warning to anyone (like my wife) who is legitimately claustrophobic: don't watch the scene in the tunnel. Just don't. I'm not "clausto" (as my dear wife says) by any stretch of the imagination, and I was getting short of breath. It's intense. The trailer you see on TV doesn't do it justice. You've been warned.
"Blair Witch" is the movie for fans of the original who wanted more, more, more. If you found yourself appreciating everything they did in the original but still kind of being pissed that you didn't get to see more then you'll go batshit for this one. It delivers. If you're more of a young'un and weren't around for the amazing hype and cultural impact of the 1999 original you'll still dig this as an example of found footage done right and proper.
You'll get to see more of that house than you'd have thought. You'll get to go in the corner and stay there for a while. Don't turn around. Don't listen to that voice in your head.