fri 25/09/2020

Blair Witch | reviews, news & interviews

Blair Witch

Blair Witch

A frustratingly timid return to the found-footage woods

Scream queen: Lisa (Callie Hernandez) wants to go home

Primal fear of the forest plus new technology made The Blair Witch Project a micro-budget phenomenon in 1999. Its “found footage” premise, with student film-makers’ tapes showing their gradual unhinging by a witch-haunted Maryland forest, has been widely copied. This and a poorly received sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, stymied further attempts to franchise what seemed to be a freak hit.

Primal fear of the forest plus new technology made The Blair Witch Project a micro-budget phenomenon in 1999. Its “found footage” premise, with student film-makers’ tapes showing their gradual unhinging by a witch-haunted Maryland forest, has been widely copied. This and a poorly received sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, stymied further attempts to franchise what seemed to be a freak hit. The news that one of horror’s most brilliant young talents, Adam Wingard, had directed a new sequel was hugely promising, making the disappointment of this puzzlingly conservative, unscary rehash all the greater.

There are six interlopers in the Black Hills forest this time: James (James Allen McCune), the brother of the original film’s doomed heroine Heather, who he hopes to find, ambitious student film-maker Lisa (Callie Hernandez), James’s best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), and two locals obsessed with the Blair Witch legend, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), pictured above. Wingard and his regular writer Simon Barrett are both associated with the “mumblecore” school of low-key, hipster badinage as well as horror, and their six Witch-seekers are realistic and sympathetic characters, with palpable, silent sexual tension between James and Lisa, deepening their humanity. There’s some sense of a real, haunted Southern place, too, from the Confederate flag on Lane’s wall which disgusts Peter to the local couple’s gloomy recounting of the Black Hills’ history of death, a source of almost proud identity which makes the outsiders’ snigger.

Changes in technology mean the shaky, cheap look of the original’s camcorders is redundant. We live in a world of found footage now, and the mix of high-quality cameras Blair Witch supposedly intercuts is unremarkable, verging on pointless. That wouldn’t matter if Wingard – whose You’re Next was superbly original and unnerving – didn’t fumble his film’s main purpose. The longer we’re in the forest, the more obvious it becomes that this just isn’t frightening. The extensive preamble to build up his characters works well, but the too well-lit woods which they can’t escape soon lose their terrors. If unzipping a tent to brave whatever’s making that horrible noise just outside isn’t scary, then Blair Witch has fundamentally failed. Obvious horror beats which prime you to jump out of your seat are skipped, but nothing replaces them. This feels more like an action film, as our heroes run to and fro through unthreatening trees, plotting ingenious, cruelly futile escapes.   

The final section, in a bad, lost house in the woods, comes the closest to terror. The house’s date is indeterminate, as if it’s been there since America’s start, persisting outside time and space, under the spell of the woods’ fatally glimpsed, naked, capering witch. The wooden walls are flaking bone-white in James’s camera, his and Lisa’s skin richly alive in hers. Corners are tight, in a closed, chaotic system with no exit. Wingate’s music and sound design verges on the psychedelic. But this brief taste of the uncanny barely compensates for the preceding weakness.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Blair Witch

The longer we’re in the forest, the more obvious it becomes that this just isn’t frightening

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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