Eye For Film >> Movies >> Blair Witch (2016) Film Review
Reviewed by: Luke Shaw
The mantra that there’s nothing new under the sun is… nothing new, considering Hollywood has been remaking its own films since the 1920s - the much loved Julie Garland Wizard Of Oz wasn’t the first time L Frank Baum’s story had been transferred to the silver screen, to name one pertinent example - so set down your torches for Blair Witch. Writer/director combo Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are responsible for two of the best cult horrors in the past few years (You’re Next and The Guest) so the revelation that their latest project, The Woods, was actually an ultra secret sequel to 1999's landmark found footage film The Blair Witch Project, was met with tentative cheers.
Blair Witch then, is a remake that is in incredibly safe hands, but one that is poised in an interesting way. For my money, the original is a terrible horror film, but an incredibly vital piece of experimental filmmaking that burst into the mainstream through a careful concoction of hype and intentional blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s original film isn’t without its moments of shock, and it has a brooding atmosphere that’s as heady and oppressive as the forest air. This marks it out as unique, but also too placid and cool to survive in the world of modern horror, where every film succeeding Paranormal Activity treats the Blair Witch Project as palimpsest.
Wingard takes us back to the Black Hills forest as James (James Allen McCune), brother of Heather from the original, has arranged to meet an amateur filmmaker who has supposedly recovered new footage from the first expedition. Spurred on by documentary film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez), and joined by their mutual friends, he sets off to find some trace of the erstwhile party. Being a modern film, the tech has improved, giving Wingard a greater range of movement and novelty than was afforded to the crew in 1999.
The four friends are joined by a pair of Confederate flag toting, death metal listening outcasts who accompany the group on the visit into the woods, adding a bit of tension between privileged teens and listless backwater folks. Where the film truly diverges from the original though, is in its relentlessness and its awareness of itself and its legacy. Care is taken to slowly build up to the point where the mood tips from tension to out and out horror, but when shit hits the fan, the film explodes forwards without a pause.
The fiction of the Blair Witch is expanded on to give audiences something less ambiguous to grasp. Temporal fuckery and actual factual witchcraft come into play to gruesome effect. Unlike in its predecessor, there’s definitely something evil in the woods, but exposure is minimal. The cracks and thuds of the sound design are the driving force of the terror, with splitting trees and far off howls ratcheting up tension even when the digital cameras artifact, blow-out and generally obscure vision.
The knowing nature of the script helps too, and Barrett excels in peppering the film with call backs and witty retorts to audience expectation. After the third or fourth time a character jumps out to surprise another person, a weary Lisa exclaims, “Could everybody stop doing that?” It’s a scream and you’ll miss it line, but it acutely sums up modern horror’s reliance on traditional jump scares while acknowledging they’re a vital and storied tool in the artifice of the genre.
A storm heralds the final moments of the film, as the remaining cast uncover the very real constructions that acted as a nexus for the Blair Witch mythology. It’s one of the most convincing transfers of the ruthlessness of nature to screen, with the sound design once again the true star of this show (no surprise given Wingard’s pedigree), as the remorseless lashing of rain and booming thunderclaps become overbearing. After a gruelling ordeal in a tunnel that feels like a tip of the hat to the best horror of the last decade - Kill List - the film finishes as abruptly as the original.
Blair Witch comes with some baggage. The original became a franchise and was mined for books, sequels and even video games. One of the key elements of horror is forcing an audience to travel down roads they don’t want to, making them brush up against the truly horrific. When the roads are already well worn, it’s hard to convince your audience to hide behind their hands. For some, it may well be the breakneck thrillride of the year, but there’s just something lacking in all its bombast and supernatural goings on. Sometimes less is absolutely more.Reviewed on: 12 Sep 2016