I’m no fan of found footage. I’m fairly certain, at varying times during the last several years, I’ve referred to it as the nadir of movie making, a way to make a movie cheaply but with almost no narrative necessity. We have Paranormal Activity and its billion sequels to blame for this far more than The Blair Witch Project, made nearly a decade earlier, but the 1999 inceptor gets much of the flack. However, save a rushed and misguided sequel in 2000, the Blair Witch saga had all but ended… until fans of the original decided to bring it back, up the ante, and make a modern horror classic.
Say what you want about The Blair Witch Project, but it was definitely a cultural touchstone at the time and the years since. Like Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, people actually believed the film was real footage collected by three film students who got lost in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, and apparently fell victim to some unnatural force. There were even faux documentaries and viral marketing campaigns to go along with it, making The Blair Witch Project the first movie to try such a thing. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (You’re Next, The Guest) couldn’t really replicate such fervor with their sequel, but what they could do was experiment with the format and fill in a few of the gaps from the original. Not too many, but a few.
This movie is set in 2014, 15 years after the original, and follows James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of Heather, the filmmaker from the original. It’s set up that James was only four at the time of his sister’s disappearance to explain why he and his friends are still so young. James finds footage online, supposedly from newly recovered DV tapes that depict someone holding a camera while running through an abandoned house. He believes this to be Heather. James’ friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) is a documentarian herself, and wants to make a movie of them searching for Heather in the woods, along with James’ best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid). The four meet up with the two townies (Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry) who found the new tapes, and the group sets off into the woods.
But since this is 2014, Lisa has a whole heap of new technology for them to use. This not only opens up the scope of her own film, but also the film we’re watching. On top of the main camera capturing the footage, each of the four core members of the cast has an ear-mounted camera which allows for their point of view, and they also have a drone for aerial shots. This immediately answers the question most people have with found-footage: why do they keep filming? The cameras are always on and are attached to the person, that’s why.
Naturally, very shortly, things start to go bad for our campers. They begin losing track of huge swaths of time, the sun seems to never come up, and the sounds of trees falling, coyotes howling, and ever-louder crashes breaking up the silence of the night, constantly unnerving the characters and audience. It’s these kinds of moments that put the audience on edge. Wingard makes the noises omnipresent and oppressive, and even scenes that have no real scares in them are punctuated by something bumping the camera mic or otherwise causing a bang. There are jump scares for sure, but none of them feel cheap, and even the couple that might be are played for laughs—a much needed tension lifter amid near nonstop fear.
And that’s ultimately what Wingard and Barrett succeed at the most here. Whereas The Blair Witch Project used constant bickering to draw the tension out until those now-iconic moments of running through the woods or trudging through the rickety old house, Blair Witch sets the characters up and the plight early on, steadily ratchets up the weirdness, and then cranks the scare quotient to 11 for the better part of the last half hour. If a complaint of the original is lack of genuine scares, no such misgiving can be had for this new one. We’re seeing everything only through the lens and the cone of light from flashlights, so there might be anything and everything out there in the darkness, and we can believe it to be true.
I don’t really feel like the legend of the Blair Witch got fleshed out as much as some have said, more that it was changed enough to fit the narrative being told here. I don’t think anybody would be lost at all if they hadn’t seen the original and had merely a passing knowledge. But the movie isn’t about getting super in to mythology; it’s about taking the original concept and moving it to the modern day… oh, and scaring the piss out of people. It definitely does that.
We spoke to the Blair Witch creators at Camp Conival!