Director: Adam Wingard
Producers: Jess Calder, Keith Calder, Roy Lee, Steven Schneider
Writer: Simon Barrett
Stars: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott
Dark: the nonnegotiable dark that can only be found in the depths of the wilderness dominates BLAIR WITCH (2016). This much-anticipated sequel—and remake—slowly unveils what we most fear: that which we cannot see, the tangible unknowable that lurks beneath a particular velvety night.
BLAIR WITCH is—and should be—viewed as a direct follow-up to 1999’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, as no self-respecting fan acknowledges the first film’s unfortunate follow-up, BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 (2000) as any relation to the smashing first installment. In contrast, BLAIR WITCH will more than satisfy fans of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, echoing all of the Gothic eeriness of the first film, while peppering in new scares sure to thrill a current audience.
When a YouTube video surfaces, depicting previously unseen footage of the night of the Burkittsville disappearances, James Donahue’s (James Allen McCune) interest is piqued. He has a special interest in the case: Heather Donahue, the documentary filmmaker who disappeared in Burkittsville, is his sister. Over the years, he has kept a keen eye out for new evidence, hoping to recover her from the depths of the forest where she vanished—and in the video, he sees a blurred woman’s face. Enlisting the help of his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who is eager to record their investigation as her own documentary film project—a girl after Heather’s own heart!—and friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), he sets out to Burkittsville in hopes of solving the mystery once and for all.
What makes THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT so gripping—and has given it the staying power to remain a popular favorite almost two decades later—is the lingering suspense: Are mysterious occurrences accidents of chance or black magic? Does the Blair Witch exist and, if so, when will she materialize? Will they find their way out? The ending of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, famously, more than makes up for the audience’s breathless wait and, in this respect, BLAIR WITCH is very much the same. In this newest installment, the prolonged darkness seems to suspend the action in a single moment of time, the night as agonizingly slow to the audience as it is to the characters, and the increasing discomfort of dwelling in the predatory darkness onscreen makes for a physically tense viewing experience. The action unfolds with creeping slowness, red herrings and dead ends stalling the inevitable.
The suspended nightfall in BLAIR WITCH serves to exhibit the dark mysticism at work in the woods of Burkittsville. In THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, hints of the fantastical are at a minimum and the audience is left to question who is more to blame: unprepared explorers, or the Witch and her forest. In BLAIR WITCH, there is no question that something supernatural is at work. Reality is twisted, to the degree that the protagonists are unnerved, but still cannot be sure that the bizarre occurrences are more than figments of the imagination. Time and place cease to function normally as nighttime stretches on forever—a horrible realization that the group comes to when Lisa’s cell phone alarm rings at 7 AM and utter darkness remains. Furthermore, James and his friends walk in a straight line, following a compass—in a scene that uncannily parallels several in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT—only to find that, somehow, they have ended up in the same place where they started, again and again and again. Unbelievably, they fail to find the house where Heather disappeared, despite locating the spot where the recently discovered tape was recovered—which, logic dictates, would be necessarily close to the site of Heather’s disappearance or demise.
The forest of our nightmares returns in BLAIR WITCH, some frames simply copied from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT for continuity (a brilliant stylistic move that plays on both our nostalgia and the first film’s sheer genius). Still, BLAIR WITCH is not without its modern updates. Of course, as in any modern remake, all the accoutrements of millennial status are there; the filmmakers use ear-top cameras (a kind of advancement on the head-cam used for point-of-view shots, which most of the film consists of), stationary cams attached to trees, and even an aerial droid (for the occasional sweeping wide shot of the forest). The film both loses and gains something from current technology’s aid: more perspective is represented from the multiple cams, but the creative twists and turns of plot that found footage flicks have traditionally required (in order to justify the use of a camera at any given moment) are now rendered irrelevant. Since the head cams are always on, characters necessarily record what they see. The loss of this conceit costs the film some of the charm of found footage—and a layer of intrigue in the plot.
It also seems that BLAIR WITCH has been updated to confront the audience with more scares, perhaps as a measure against bored, desensitized viewers. The creep factor is upped by the presence of two new characters, more unsettling than of the witch’s pure evil; James contacts the YouTube user who posted the footage, Lane (Wes Robinson)—screen name: DarkNet666—and the sweaty, pale fellow, only lacking the neck-beard to match, insists on accompanying the group with his friend (girlfriend?), Talia (Valorie Curry).
The pervasive fright within (and, indeed, without) the film that flourishes in the absolute dark and provokes all of the sheer animal terror that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT so famously aroused–with the notable addition of some nauseating body horror and a few visceral scream-in-your-seat scares. I won’t give them away—just know that you’re in for something far beyond the merely spooky. Naysayers be damned, BLAIR WITCH is an impressive addition to a franchise that seemed doomed after BOOK OF SHADOWS’ initial flop, mesmerizing for newcomers and seasoned fans alike.