If you’re anything like me, then you can vividly recall sitting in a darkened theater back in the summer of 1999; a time rife with far less theater-shootings and authoritarian political control. Appearing on screen was a grainy black and white recording of some sort of documentary, which it was and wasn’t. There had been numerous mockumentaries prior (Man Bites Dog), but none within the horror genre, and nothing that captured the audience’s attention quite like this.
On screen was the discovered footage of three supposedly missing individuals who had gone out into the Maryland woods back in 1994 in search of an old folk-lore; the Blair Witch. The brilliance came in the meticulously detailed and planned pre-release marketing, one that dealt in manipulating the world into thinking this was real footage, and that these three amateur documentarians were truly and unequivocally missing. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez even went as far as to direct a SciFi Channel mockumentary titled The Curse of the Blair Witch to further expand on the myth, and to carve out a deeper irrational fear that this might very well have happened.
Flash forward 17 years, in which similar wool was being pulled over our eyes, as genre-blacksmith Adam Wingard (You’re Next [’11], The Guest [’14]) began production on a hush-hush film titled, The Woods. Filmed in secret in the summer of 2015, Wingard’s project had its unveiling at Comic-Con, in which attendees were treated to a follow-up bomb drop that revealed Lionsgate’s true intentions.
Set 20 years after the 1994 incident in the Black Hills forest of Maryland, Blair Witch follows James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of Heather Donahue, one of the three documentarians who wound up missing after unexpected events befell them. After witnessing an online video of what appears to be his sister, James and a few close friends decide to retrace his sister’s ill-fated steps, decked out in the latest GPS technology, along with GoPro cameras and Drones. Before heading out, they meet up with the couple who posted the video, Lane (Wes Robinson) and his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry), who demand to tag along. Reluctantly they accept, and once deep within the woods, James and his crew of amateur detectives begin experiencing unnerving horrors that set them on a path to discovering what really happened back in 1994.
The undeniable beauty of the original, whether you fell into its concept and execution, or scoffed with rolled eyes, is that it took a basic premise, and buried it deep within the idea of truth. When audiences flocked to cinemas to catch this newly-crafted piece of horror, their fears subsisted on what they heard, and in 1999, it was a bit more difficult to kick up information on what was fact or fiction. With our most recent camping trip, director Adam Wingard crafted a film that’s sifted from the ashes of the original, with a premise mirroring The Blair Witch Project to a point, yet still manages to spiral down a darkened path covered in tricks that reveal a film laden with newly discovered treats.
There has always been a primal focus on the home invasion sub-genre within Wingard’s films, with a blade lick of revenge thrown in for good measure. You’re Next gave us a family gathering turned home lock-down as three masked intruders torment their victims, only to have the tables turned by one of the strongest female leads in year. With The Guest, a family’s sorrow is interrupted by their deceased son’s army buddy who may not be who he seems, as the family’s daughter begins to suspect something’s amiss. Both of these toy with the two sub-genres incredibly well, and to an extent, Blair Witch is no different; we’re given a group of desperate college students who enter the witches domain in search of an idea, and what befalls them is only par for the course in the home-invasion genre.
As James, his closest friend Peter (Brandon Scott), his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), and their friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) all head into the woods, we are given a glimpse at what tore Heather and her crew apart, as tensions are raised and exhaustion is spiked. It’s an element of the original that twisted audiences already tightly wound nerves, primarily because we were witnessing it for the first time. When voices are raised and everyone’s ease becomes a bundled knot of branches, forming symbolically dreaded stick people, we can’t help but roll our eyes at the redundancy; is this really unfolding in the same fashion to people who already know the outcome of Heather, Michael and Josh? The answer is yes, and the 2nd act is unfortunately rooted in a formula most have witnessed before.
However, once everyone regains their footing down the proverbial rabbit-hole, and begins to realize what must be happening all around them, we are cast away into a film that holds its own. Sure, we’re witnessing a group of documentarians lost in the same woods as the first film, all beginning to lose their cool due to unforeseen forces akin to its predecessor, yet Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett create terror so effective it’s transferable. Witnessing our group of frightened and insanity tinged filmmakers’ barrel through the woods in pursuit of or from an unknown sound, we are immediately taken back to our very first visit to Burkittsville, and for those that have never been, it’s a welcoming introduction that won’t soon be forgotten.
Now, does this approach to creating a sequel detract from the film itself, or does it compliment it? The answer is a little bit of both. The original Blair Witch Project is an essential view for any horror fan, as it’s a film that altered the way we look at the genre and a remarkable viewing in and of itself. That being said, there are many out there that weren’t even born when it premiered, so being able to experience something as similar as this is entirely meaningful, especially with Wingard playing off the isolation and insanity of the first with such an impeccable eye.
There are scenes that mirror those that directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick crafted in gloriously unfocused 16mm with The Blair Witch Project, except this time around there is a taut attention to the chaos around us, as the camera maneuvers around to give us a much better sense of what might be out there. While it’s a coating of polish that gives Blair Witch a horrific clarity, it reminds us of how real the first felt, leaving an imprint of seeing something that was really dug up from the rotting leaves of the Black Hills.
Luckily, as James and his camera crew disappear and the unknown begins to peel itself from the shadows, we are granted a truly nail-biting 3rd act that expands on the originals final scene, giving Wingard room to flex his own muscles.
As we move from the spacious confines of the woods to the claustrophobic trappings of the long lost house from the first film, we are treated to some of the most panic induced shots since the found-footage genre found its way onto celluloid. Where we originally felt as if we were chasing an urban legend, here we find ourselves feeling chased, and that revelation acts as a pure terror-filled intracardiac injection as the molded and palmed printed walls of the house rush past us in a glorious haze of dread. There is so much more to this final act than one might think, but I’ll let that slowly slide into your consciousness upon viewing, as it delivers a brilliantly new concept into a faux-folk-tale that we have sat uncomfortably with for almost two decades.
Many will probably be put off by the lack of originality that rests at the surface of Adam Wingard’s sequel, though for me, that unoriginality does nothing to hinder the absolutely solid direction and disquiet that hides in wait within a film that acts more like an expansion pack than a sequel. While Blair Witch does give us more of the same, it also takes the remaining folk-lore and sets it ablaze, scorching the firsts foreboding atmosphere and frightfully ambiguous scenes while delivering a hauntingly frustrating film that happens to be one of the best horror entries of that year.