Blair Witch: Burkittsville Bastardization
by Mario Chuman | published Oct. 21st, 2016
Continuing Hollywood’s recent trend of ‘90s revival pieces, Lionsgate returns to the woods to make lightning strike twice with "Blair Witch." Originally shot as a film dubbed “The Woods,” the wool was pulled over everybody’s eyes during San Diego Comic-Con 2016 when it was revealed that “The Woods” was secretly the third installment in the iconic found footage franchise. This reveal would have been revelatory and shocking if it weren’t for the fact that "10 Cloverfield Lane" managed the same production twist months before. Nevertheless, considering the audience reception of the often maligned "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2," excitement for a revival of the long-dormant franchise was at an all time high.
"Blair Witch" is directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, the duo behind the excellent "You’re Next" and several segments in the flawed yet fascinating V/H/S franchise. The two have been responsible for genuinely refreshing takes in the horror genre, with an extraordinary talent for capturing pitch perfect pacing with shocks and turns that flesh out their works into something truly special. Considering my respect for their work and the fact that "The Blair Witch Project" is what I find the scariest film of all time, I was very excited. I had hopes for a terrifying film that would capture the spirit of mystery and rawness that the original indulged in. However, "Blair Witch" takes the worst structural aspects of modern found footage films to aggressively extinguish the appeal of "The Blair Witch Project."
Taking place 20 years after the original film, "Blair Witch" revolves around James Donahue (James Allen McCune) who sets off on an expedition to the Burkitsville Woods. His mission is to find his significantly older sister Heather, who was the protagonist of "The Blair Witch Project" and went missing after the events of the film. He enlists the assistance of three friends and two locals and plunges deep into the woods. Armed to the teeth with various flavors of cameras and navigation equipment, the completely expected happens to the group almost immediately. Their journey is instantly met with the unexplainable and the horrific. The characters find themselves split up and hunted by a deadly witch who can control time and space in the woods around them.
Virtually every word of the previous paragraph should sprout red flags and cause for alarm as "Blair Witch" stumbles in every obvious way. The conceit of the film is plagued with elementary issues that are asked but never properly addressed. The premise begs the question of “why are you looking for a person who went missing two decades ago in the middle of giant woods that were thoroughly searched?” The answer, of course, is “because there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise,” which immediately brings the foundation of the film to its knees. The illogical and inconsistent motivations of the characters continue throughout the film past its initial premise. In one instance, characters mock the thought of the woods being haunted even though they explicitly volunteered to go on an emotional rescue mission of mysterious circumstances.
The feeling of inauthenticity of the characters bleeds throughout the troubled screenplay. Characters act in extremely unbelievable ways and make decisions that have no basis in logic. Multiple characters take unnecessary risks by splitting up or investigating strange noises, even after the threat of danger is present and clear. Characters react to the threat of unfathomable danger in ways that feel forced to make the film’s plot prod along. The most egregious scene in particular involves a character climbing a giant tree, while her foot is undergoing serious Cronenbergian body horror. Alone and without hesitation, she foolishly attempts to rescue a drone in the dead of night. The sequence completely forgets that her foot is at the point of having more in common with a cocoon than anything human, and the adrenaline fueled climbing sequence comes across as extraordinarily ill-conceived. The character’s baffling decision was met in kind, but it was impossible to not feel that the set piece lacked any subtlety or tension.
The lack of subtlety and tension is heartbreaking, because the original "The Blair Witch Project" excels at both. The film engages its audience by portraying a very human story of anxiety and misery and builds the pacing to perfection. The scares of the original film feel earned because they are built up with said precision. Every scene magnifies the horror of the previous scene, which masterfully fills the heart with dread. The film’s horror set pieces are small yet terrifying, and the lack of any clear answer begs the audience to fill the rest with their imaginations. Even the extremely despised sequel, "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" attempts to capture the mystique and societal reverence that the original had. While the film was no winner, "Book of Shadows" attempted to pull off a radical meta-commentary of society’s reaction to the original and tackles how media and folklore changes our subjective perspectives. Both "The Blair Witch Project" and "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" dared to take risks and revolve the mystique of the possibility of horror to present compelling stories.
"Blair Witch" goes in the complete opposite direction and spells out its horror in the clearest of ways. It shamelessly retreads the ground of the original film in almost every way and pumps it up to extreme levels. A bone chilling sequence involving a shaking tent is turned into a tent mindlessly being plucked into the sky, a few stick figures are turned into a cornucopia of the iconic twigs, and one instance of facing the corner is turned into three. What’s appalling about the latter is that "Blair Witch" attempts to explain the horrifying and mysterious action, which removes all of the mystery of the unknown from the franchise. To make matters significantly worse, the film goes out of its way to parade all of its horror visually. Every piece of horror and mystery is plainly put in front of you, making the answers to questions extraordinarily mundane. The visuals also include horrific and unnecessary jump scares that explode in almost every scene and transition. In essence, "Blair Witch" is a generic found footage film that tries to be a sequel to the greatest found footage film of all time and retroactively makes everything less interesting.
While I do find that "Blair Witch" is an extreme disappointment, it does provide its own flavors of engagement. A small twist in the second act of the film involves the complete disintegration of time and space as constructs and leaves the cast completely in the mercy of the woods. While this makes the eeriness of characters getting lost in the original movie significantly less interesting, "Blair Witch" makes the best of the situation by creating an environment where hopelessness is the only option. While the film’s relationship with time and space has been done before in the likes of "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" and "Grave Encounters," the approach to extreme visual storytelling in a premise that’s intriguing makes it a treat for the senses. This interesting pitch on atmosphere is played with in the final act, where the visuals are experimented with extraordinary care that causes you to rethink the context of the entire film.
The film is also engaging in the different flavors of horror that it delivers. Creatures, voodoo dolls, possession, body horror, claustrophobia, acrophobia, haunted houses, and darkness are all flirted with in varying levels, causing a flavorful screenplay. While many of the flavors fail to work on a narrative level, it is quite comforting to see clear effort to satisfy on the screen. The aforementioned claustrophobia sequence is quite prolonged and anybody with the fear is bound to find it unforgettable. While the scene was a bit too visually similar to "Evil Dead" (2013) and "[REC]" for my liking, I did appreciate its attempts to terrify. My favorite horror trope that the film touches base with is an extended haunted house sequence. By expanding the otherworldly horror of the iconic house from the original, a memorable and fun set piece that feels thrilling is indulged with. Unfortunately, it does come at the expense of explaining the mystery behind the original final setting.
Failing all else, the most important aspect of a horror film is the subjective answer to the question: is it scary? The answer in my mind is undoubtedly no. "Blair Witch" is a film of half promises and flimsy executions and any fun comes with unfortunate qualifiers. The good aspects of the film are weighed down by baggage and sighs of what could have been. While a large part of my distaste for "Blair Witch" comes in regards to the fact that its existence makes the original "The Blair Witch Project" worse, a film does not exist in a vacuum and must be judged in the context of its own existence. On its own, "Blair Witch" is a moderately entertaining, if obnoxious, ride that has been executed hundreds of times before. In the context of the franchise that it so desperately wants to revive, "Blair Witch" is the "Jurassic World" of the franchise, redoing the original beat for beat with more pomp and circumstance and ignoring every idea that other installments had. And while many enjoyed the mediocre "Jurassic World," one film is attempting to be a horror sequel to a subtle horror classic. The worst thing I could say about "Blair Witch" is that it is more offensive to the idea of the original than "Book of Shadows" was, and that "Blair Witch" is by far the worst part of the franchise.