SEQUELISED: Blair Witch (2016)

Dylan goes back to Burkittsville for a sequel to one of his favourite films. Is it as bad as they all say?

Who made it?: Adam Wingard (Director/Co-Producer), Simon Barrett (Writer/Co-Producer), Jess Calder, Keith Calder, Roy Lee, Steven Schneider (Co-Producers), Lionsgate/Room 101/Snoot Entertainment.

Who’s in it?: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry.

Tagline: “A Nightmare of Classic Proportions.”

IMDb rating: 5.0/10.

In my years writing for SquabbleBox, I have mostly strayed away from writing negative movie articles. There is nothing wrong with disliking a film, and good or bad criticism is equally valid. My own interests in writing about cinema lie in letting the world know about my favourite flicks, rather than genuine movie reviews. However, I recently watched Blair Witch, the sequel/soft reboot of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, one of my favourite films of all time. The minute the credits rolled, I started writing.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with updating The Blair Witch Project. We live in a world that is so different from the mid-nineties in terms of quality and availability of homemade footage. How we record the world has intrinsically changed. I am a huge fan of horror director Adam Wingard, who used scratchy video in V/H/S to great effect. Also, remakes and sequels are treated with more and more reverence, and as I am sure I have mentioned elsewhere on the site before, I love Found Footage movies, and though quality flicks of this nature are few and far between, the ones that work have a uniquely terrifying edge.

The Blair Witch Project has a special place in my heart. I first saw it when I eleven or twelve, and the visuals freaked me out. The rawness of the footage and the natural creepiness of the wooden figures in the trees, as well as the handprints in the abandoned house, really struck me. These images haunted my thoughts on dark, wintry nights for years. Of course, I knew they weren’t real, but there was always a nagging feeling that it was possibly true, or at the very least based on something that was. When I learned about how the film was made, with the directors leaving rough scenes for the actors to play out, and “haunting” them throughout the night, I was amazed by the unique film production and I still am. This Kermodian documentary sums up the magic:

I was excited about the new movie, and hoped that they would understand what made the original so important; the filmmakers found a new way to tell a horror story at that point in cinema history, exploiting the burgeoning power of the internet for their marketing. What emerged with 2016’s effort, however, was something that only touched on the horror of the original, and instead made Blair Witch reductive imitation.

The plot follows the brother of one of the original characters, watching footage online which, in the reality of the film, is actual found footage. He and some of his friends go into the same Burkittsville hills to try and find his sister. But when they get into the woods, supernatural events suck them in…

That word, supernatural, is crucial for me in explaining why this movie cannot touch the original. One the creepiest things about the 1999 classic was the theory that maybe all the scary happenings were just a bunch of weirdos in the woods toying with them. Maybe it was Josh, or even both of the boys ganging up on poor Heather Donahue. Even if you accept that there is a paranormal element, there is still debate over whether the responsibility lay with serial killer Rustin Parr, the witch (whatever the witch might be), or some combination of the two. All we have are shadows, sticks in the trees, rocks around the tent, goo on belongings etc. All homemade objects someone could setup outside your house as you read this. From this, you have the shots that have become iconic because they were framed on the fly. So much of the first was made by the actors reacting to their situation, and what they shot from there. This gave an authenticity to the footage, even if the footage is fictional.

Blair Witch is not a bad movie, and I fully trust the talent behind it, but it is following something that was a crucial and important moment in cinema history, something with an indie sensibility that hit the big time. Blair Witch doesn’t take advantage of its new generation. The sequel fails because it doesn’t try to break new ground, but instead tries to expand on the original’s mythology. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that decision, but the Found Footage move is now a well-worn path and nothing about the setup or characters is very novel.

The shakycam and clean-looking digital is by this point a cliché. There is some interest with the use of a drone camera, and the lenses strapped to their heads, but these feel like filmmaker gimmicks designed to allow more angles. What I loved about V/H/S was how Wingard brought in real, tangible scuzziness, and brought alive the crappy, fuzzy feel of the video genre. Here, his style works to make an inexplicably slick production.

There are some interesting ideas in the time hops, the endless cover of night, and the supernatural lights streaming through windows. But these seem to come from a different mythos entirely. There is a moment when the plot of Blair Witch abandons the paranormal and neatly turns the narrative towards a something very different, but sadly, this doesn’t last long. The “stick back-breaking” section signalled the end of my interest. Rather than gory or chilling, this particular moment displayed that inappropriate digital effects were going to reign supreme.

By the time the final few shots arrive, with a CGI “witch” (although, to be fair, this is up for debate according to the screenwriter), I had simply lost all interest in the story. The one thing you absolutely do not do with the first movie is confirm the otherworldly creepiness by making a monster movie. Blair Witch drifts off into jump scare territory, something so far away from the realist tone of the original. Will anyone sit awake and think about this film for the next ten years? Will that digital look still remain timely in twenty? Will the visual effects monster become as iconic as the camera simply falling to the floor? Doubtful.

The Blair Witch Project is not for everyone, and I fully admit that this is a flavour of cinema many find boring or unpleasant to watch. But for me, this early example of Found Footage is still one of the absolute best examples of the genre. Despite being only twenty-years-old, The Blair Witch Project is already a period piece both in terms of cinema craft and in my own life, too. Those stick figures will always hang in my mind when I walk through the woods. This sequel is only a pale imitation, and though new fans of the series may find some enjoyment, I cannot contain my disappointment. This Halloween, if you are looking to take a trip to Blair, make sure you do so in 1994.

Best Scene

I suppose these are the least boring bits?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • In order to make this sequel as surprising as possible, filming was done in complete secrecy in Vancouver, as opposed to Patapsco State Park where the original was shot. The film was originally promoted under the faux-title “The Woods.” The first trailer was then shown at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con, revealing it as the third Blair Witch film, a mere two months prior to the premiere.
  • Throughout the film, freeze frames of the original Blair Witch footage can be seen on screen for a single frame, usually when a camera is turned on or off, including, but not limited to an image of a hanging stick figurine, and the image of Michael standing in a corner.
  • In preparation of another movie, Burkittsville officials took down most of the “Welcome to Burkittsville” signs, after many were stolen following the release of the first and second movies.
  • As reported by director Adam Wingard, the camera used to film A Horrible Way to Die (one of the many previous collaborations between him and screenwriter Simon Barrett) was the same one characters use throughout this film.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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