Blair Witch (2016), a Review

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Director – Adam Wingard

Writer – Simon Barrett

Starring – James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Valorie Curry

When the original The Blair Witch Project hit cinemas in 1999 it was nothing short of a revelation. Whilst it was not the first film to ever deploy the found-footage style of film making, it was certainly the first to garner this much mainstream success and critical praise, changing  the face of the horror genre, and leading to hundreds of copycats all attempting to emulate that success.

The beautiful thing about this belated sequel is that nobody knew it was coming, as hype had been built for the mysterious The Woods, which was touted as one of the scariest films for years. It was only late in the day we discovered that The Woods was, in fact, a Blair Witch sequel. With no time for cynicism to kick in, the film rode in on a wave of hype. For the most part it delivers, managing to be both an atmospheric experience and a worthy successor.

In 2014, James Donahue finds a video containing a supposed image of his sister Heather who disappeared in 1994 ,near Burkittsville, while investigating the legend of the Blair Witch. Believing she is still alive, he heads into the woods, accompanied by friends Peter Jones, Ashley Bennett, and film student Lisa Arlington, who wants to film the search and use it as a documentary. Locals Talia and Lane join them, telling them that the Blair Witch is very real, and to be very afraid. Predictably (in a good way), weird shit begins to happen and all hell breaks loose.

The found-footage format is seen by many as a lazy way to make cinema, and, in many ways, that is a completely accurate statement. Gone is the need to worry about great cinematography or fancy editing techniques, as the format simply does not allow for this to happen. Instead we get a raw and visceral experience, devoid of any frills or window-dressing. For some genres this simply wouldn’t work. In the horror genre, however, it thrives.

This is because it allows a much more intimate experience. We see through the eyes of the hapless victims, which allows us to feel much closer to the action, whilst also means our vision is as restricted as the characters, so we never see the antagonistic force before they do. We feel every moment of terror as if we ourselves were facing it. It’s an immersive experience, and, when done correctly, can be absolutely terrifying.

In that aspect, Blair Witch works wonderfully for the first hour. It understands the basic idea that, in horror, it’s often the imagination of the audience that will conjure up something more terrifying than the screen could possibly replicate. I’ve often said that human beings aren’t afraid of the dark itself. Rather, they fear what may live inside the dark, as the imagination tries to fill the blanks. It’s known commonly as ‘The Less is More effect’ and it almost always works sublimely.

The director, Adam Wingard, demonstrated his understanding of this in the wonderful horror anthology film VHS, and he again proves it here. Everything is implied, little is shown. We are left to imagine, for the most part, what’s happening. Our imaginations running wild in fear. It absolutely heightens the experience relying not on terrifying creature designs or over-use of gore, but, instead, our own primal anxieties and fears.

Unfortunately, the film won’t be as impactful to those who remember the original clearly, as a lot of the story beats are similar. Fortunately, I’d long forgotten the ins and outs of the first and consequently this felt fresh to me in a stagnant contemporary horror scene. That said, if you do remember the first, or are a super fan, it probably won’t work as well. You may well get the dreaded feeling of ‘Been there, seen that’, which is a damn shame.

The format itself, annoyingly, doesn’t always makes sense. Occasionally we get first-person shots that are impossible within the parameters of the film. We’re shown, clearly, that only three characters at maximum carry cameras. Yet, every character gets a first-person shot at some point, completely dismantling the illusion. It’s as if the director forgot the basic rule of filmmaking, the idea of remembering where every character is in relation to one another. It’s a small issue that only cinephiles and critics are likely to spot, and your casual film-goer certainly won’t notice, but it does shatter the illusion for those with a sharp eye.

The ending is also problematic, as they undo a lot of good will by showing us The Witch herself, which , sadly, is a massive let-down. It’s only a fleeting glimpse, but it was completely unnecessary and kinda disappointing and spits in the face somewhat of what came before it.  The final scenes are also, frankly, naff, trying to be extremely clever and bring the first film into play, but ending up as a bit of a confusing mess.

It also features two massive moments of stupidity from the surviving two characters which would seal their fate, which could be attributed to the fear overriding their common sense, or, if you want to be more pretentious, the idea that they’d surrended to their fate. This only works though if you, the audience, decide to interpret the scene in a certain way, and the most common reading will almost certainly be that it was just a stupid idea.

In terms of performances, everybody does a good job and are mostly convincing. As the lead, McCune is asked to carry the emotional gravitas of the story, which he manages more often than not, and he’s very convincing during the segments where he conveys terror. Callie Hernandez is also particularly good as Lisa, putting in a authentic and believable performance throughout. Sadly, the rest of the cast falls a little short, but none are particularly bad or even approaching terrible.

It’s hard to gauge the script, really, as it attempts to be as natural as possible and replicate authentic human reactions. Consequently we get a lot of goofing around early, and a lot of ‘Fucks’ and heavy breathing when things get more heated. It makes sense, and it is believable and convincing, just somewhat lacking in sparkle.

Wingard does a fantastic job in the director’s chair, proving that VHS was no fluke and that he has a talent for unsettling and audience. He coaxes strong performances out of all his actors and his use of sound is sublime. The sound in particular is responsible for a large proportion of the terror. It is continuously unsettling, with very subtle whispers piped in for maximum pant-shitting effect. Unfortunately, he fucks it a bit with the aforementioned poor understanding of his own format.

Blair Witch is certainly a far superior sequel to the previous one, Book of Shadows (2000), which was the absolute drizzling shits. This is a mostly effective horror flick that manages in partsto be genuinely terrifying, whilst remaining unsettling throughout the run-time. Unfortunately, it takes liberties with the format and the ending takes a nosedive. Still, a great horror experience, and Wingard looks like a talent for the future.

 

Final Rating – 3.8/5

 

Joshua Moulinie

 

 

 

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