In Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’ original Blair Witch Project, the film’s team of student documentarians interview half a dozen residents of Burkittsville, Maryland. Some refuse to talk about the legend of the Blair Witch, while others share tales quite distinct from one another. Part of the film’s charm is that it’s unclear who, if anyone, knows the true story until the film’s final moments. Fast forward to 2016, as director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett unleash Blair Witch, a sequel-cum-remake that twists the original film’s meager, unreliable backstory into an often thrilling piece of horror cinema.
Twenty years after Heather Donahue, Mike Williams and Josh Leonard went missing in the Black Hills outside of Burkittsville, Heather’s little brother James (James Allen McCune) is still searching for the truth. When news arrives that someone has found one of Heather’s tapes, James enlists three of his buddies — documentarian Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and moral support Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) — and heads to Burkittsville. With local Blair Witch hunters Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) in tow, the team hikes into the forest in hopes of finding Heather, the mysterious house, or even the Blair Witch herself.
Blair Witch follows the plot of the original almost to the letter, even down to the excruciating bickering that comes when the whole party realizes they are hopelessly lost. This film escapes feeling like a needless rehash, though, by incorporating new elements into the Blair Witch tale. Wingard and Barrett pick their scares very carefully, ensuring that the witch’s curse manifests itself in unique ways for each character, some more baffling than others. One character storms out of the film, only to pop up repeatedly under increasingly bizarre circumstances. The explanation is a fascinating development, and one that helps distort the film’s perception of reality.
Digital photography has come a long way since 1999, and for the most part, Wingard takes full advantage of the jump to digital. James’ crew incorporate a number of high-tech gadgets to document their journey, including a GoPro drone to give us “cheap helicopter shots” and earpiece cameras that get way overexplained in the first act. They make a huge deal out of the fact that the earpieces are equipped with GPS trackers. You’d think that might come in handy once everyone gets lost in the woods, but the fact is conveniently forgotten. The earpieces give everyone an excuse to talk directly into the camera, turning many scenes into the horror equivalent of Peep Show. The found footage effect still works, though no one would ever mistake this Blair Witch for reality. It’s just a tad too polished for that old gimmick to work its magic twice.*
On top of that, Wingard wields the film’s sound design like a weapon. When characters go missing in the dead of night, their comrades’ shouts echo out into the void, seemingly swallowed up by the pitch black woods. It’s rare that a film creates a sense of isolation through sound design alone, but Blair Witch captures that effect beautifully. Other moments feature the thunderous sound of tree branches cracking and snapping, like some behemoth is stomping around just out of sight. And when the film starts cranking up the loud noises, it refuses to let up. If you’re on the fence about seeing this film theatrically, the audio experience is more than worth it.
Blair Witch’s greatest strength is how it plays coy with the actual nature of the Blair Witch. Fans of the original will recall aspects of the Burkittsville residents’ stories, and the way this film conflates those stories with other hypotheses makes for a great little bit of worldbuilding. Is the Blair Witch really a witch? Is it Bigfoot? Is it otherworldly? Fortunately, the film refuses to provide a clear answer, but it takes great delight in offering a myriad of suggestions.
*Arguably, the gimmick here was that no one knew we were even getting a Blair Witch sequel until they screened it at Comic-Con.Liked This? Share It!