Directed by: Adam Wingard
Written by: Simon Barrett
Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott
Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch is a straightforward if occasionally inventive reworking of the original. The movie introduces a lot of interesting new elements, like implementing drones or trail cams into the found footage formula. Sadly, though, it does little more than introduce them. It instead opts for a fairly predictable, albeit still frightening, excursion through the haunted Maryland woods.
The story focuses on James (James Allen McCune) leading his group of nervous if game friends (Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott) on a journey to find out what happened to his sister Heather, one of the characters in the original Blair Witch Project. It begins with something the 1999 movie expressly avoided: revealing the Witch. James shows footage of her to his friends on YouTube after it was posted by someone claiming to have found it in the woods where Heather and the rest of her film crew vanished more than 15 years ago. James’ first order of business is to meet with the people who posted it. Lane and Talia (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) agree to show him and his friends where in the woods they found the memory card, but only if they’re allowed to join them.
Lane, like James and his friends, has a camera of his own that he plans on filming everything with, which casts him and Talia in a suspicious light. (The giant Confederate flag hanging prominently in their house doesn’t help, either). Lane’s camera is older, so the images from his point of view are murkier, a kind of visual throwback to the original. I wish the movie had done more with the characters’ filmmaking perspectives rather than just differentiate them aesthetically. Like everything else that’s promisingly original about this reboot, it’s introduced and not expounded on.
Once everyone gets into the woods, the Witch makes fairly short work of them, though Wingard is good at injecting dread into their trek. One character’s minor foot cut seems to take on a life of its own, pulsating and bleeding through the bandages. The group awakens to find man- (or witch-)made branch and stone configurations dangling at their campsite. This creates a gap between the initial group of friends and Lane and Talia, and after an argument they separate. It’s here that Blair Witch warps with time; when the characters meet back up, Lane and Talia are convinced they’ve been in the woods for days even as everything continues to happen in real-time. They’re starving, dirty and Lane is starting to grow a beard. Part of what makes these movies effective is the unknown extent of the Witch’s power; she’s glimpsed in a couple brief flurries as she divides and conquers them, but she remains a terrifying anomaly.
Eventually, a couple of the living characters make their way (or are guided by the Witch) to a desolate house in the middle of the woods. The house is a fantastically grotesque creation, its chipped, decayed interior littered with black handprints and filled with secret, claustrophobic spaces. Blair Witch is most effective here, shifting perspectives because of available lighting on certain cameras while still maintaining a mood of unrelenting terror. Wingard would have fared better if he had gotten the characters to the house sooner and stayed longer.
It’s also here that the YouTube video from the beginning turns the characters’ own found footage journey into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It sets itself up in an infinite found footage loop. James’ relatives will probably be drawn to the woods to find him just like he was to his sister. So will the relatives of the other characters. Even though the technology has greatly evolved since 1999, it’s not used for anything more than characters documenting themselves. The obsessive documentation isn’t weaponized against them, like in the considerably better, far scarier recent horror film Unfriended. Instead, Blair Witch was designed to tell the same story as the original in a slicker way; the characters may have a myriad of fancy new gadgets, but the Witch is still going to get them.