“Camping always sounds like more fun than it is.” – Blair Witch (2016)
Seventeen years ago, I sat in a theatre and watched The Blair Witch Project. It may have been opening night; if not, it was close. A friend had wanted to go, and I was always up for a horror movie, but I didn’t know much about what I was getting into except that it was maybe really true (but of course probably not).
The next 81 minutes were harrowing, but how much of that was from the movie itself, and how much the experience, the diving in cold, the “is it real or not” buzz, I can’t say, because I’ve never revisited the film since. Nothing ever seemed like it could touch that first time.
When I sat down last Wednesday night to a preview screening of Blair Witch, I wasn’t expecting that same thrill. I wasn’t expecting much, not really. I had been cautiously excited for the movie back when it was still going under the working title The Woods, to keep its status as a direct sequel to The Blair Witch Project–ignoring the already extant, ill-starred 2000 sequel Book of Shadows, which I’ve also seen but don’t remember–a secret. But my excitement came not from anything I’d seen in the teasers, but from the filmmaking duo of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, whose previous films You’re Next and, especially, The Guest, had managed to surprise me in ways that I really enjoyed.
When it was revealed that The Woods was actually Blair Witch, my ardor cooled, but I still hoped that maybe Wingard and Barrett would manage to extract something equally interesting from the nearly twenty-year-old franchise that kickstarted the modern fascination with found footage horror films. For me, they never quite made it.
Which is not to say that I didn’t like Blair Witch. It was fine enough, settling firmly in a spot near the middle of my “movies I’ve seen this year” list, nowhere near as lousy as the worst nor as good as the best, but I was hoping for more of what I had come to expect from Wingard and Barrett, and instead I got more of what I have come to expect from The Blair Witch Project‘s slew of imitators over the years.
There are plenty of moments in Blair Witch that work–I particularly liked one especially large stick figure–but there is also a lot that feels overly familiar, either from this film’s predecessor or from the innumerable found footage horror flicks that have succeeded it. Blair Witch takes good advantage of its sound design, but while the sound of huge trees snapping that accompanies most of the film’s scary moments is very effective, after a while you realize that the majority of the scares are just that noise, followed by people screaming and running and then… nothing.
The stuff that does happen in Blair Witch tends to hew pretty closely to The Blair Witch Project template, although always taking it just a little bit bigger, but never quite as much bigger as I wanted them to. The things that were inexplicable one-offs there become rules here, exposited to us by the characters, and what worked as a creepy image in 1999, doesn’t work as well as a rule in 2016.
Ultimately, how you feel about Blair Witch may depend, in part, upon how much of a fan of the original movie you are, and what you’re excited about in this sequel. Even if the film itself didn’t make it abundantly clear (and it does), the Q&A that followed my screening showed that Wingard and Barrett are die-hard fans of The Blair Witch Project, and they’re coming at this movie with a lot of reverence for the source material. For other fans of the film that may be a feature. For me, as someone who was hoping for more Wingard and Barrett and less Blair Witch Project, I felt like it tied their hands, keeping them from reaching the same heights that their previous films together have enjoyed.