I am taking a departure this week and reviewing a movie that is still in theaters.
First, a brief recap for those who haven’t seen the original. The first Blair Witch Project came out in 1999 and launched an entirely new genre of “found footage” films, which makes use of hand-held cameras, cell-phone videos, and other portable media to bring the action down to ground level and more fully immerse the audience in a first person point-of-view experience. The use of this medium tends to convey a grittier, shakier, and (presumably) more genuine feel to the film.
The original Blair Witch Project contained only three characters who become lost in the woods of Burkitsville, Maryland as they searched for clues to the existence of the Blair Witch, the ghost of a former town resident who had been murdered in the late 1700s for practicing witchcraft. The movie deftly played on our fears of the occult and the unknown without needing to travel much beyond our own imagination because even though we didn’t ever see the Witch, we were definitely privy to its supernatural presence and the havoc it could wreak.
The Blair Witch Project was really a love-it-or-hate-it film. The novelty of having the entire movie made from stitching together footage found after the fact was a refreshing change of pace for many, though for some the shaky cinematography, frequent cutaway scenes, and often grainy imagery was a turn off for many. Personally, I really liked it. I especially liked what was missing from the movie: a sound track. Without a musical score to complement or set up the scenes, the viewer lacked an emotional compass and was left to process the movie in real-time alongside the characters, which I felt made the story more compelling (if not exhausting).
Blair Witch (2016) picks up 22 years after the original film. It stars James Allen McCune as the brother of Heather Donahue (the shrill, teary-eyed, snot-dripping girl who got everyone in trouble in the first Blair Witch). James receives a previously unreleased video clip of the Burkitsville Woods from an anonymous source in which catches a fleeting glimpse of what he believes is his sister. Filled with a renewed sense of hope that his sister may still be alive, he enlists the help of three friends to help him track down the source and search for clues to his sister’s disappearance.
The “anonymous source” turns out to be two trailer park redneck nerds who insist on coming along though their motives are not entirely clear. And I kinda felt like I needed them to have a plausible reason because, well really, why the hell would you want to accompany a group of college students into supposedly haunted woods? But whatever, I’m not a screenwriter or casting director and neither is anyone in the group of four so the trailer park kids end up being added to the potential victim pool ostensibly as guides and we’re off to the woods.
BW16 follows the same general formula as the original but with notably less success. Whereas the original Blair Witch relied on a couple of hand-held cameras of marginal quality, BW16 has at its disposal a dizzying array of video and electronic devices including earbud cameras (picture), walkie talkies, GPS positioning devices, and even a camera-mounted drone that can be operated by cell phone.
All of this advanced technology seemed to have been included in an attempt to have the best of both worlds: the point-of-view perspective that are the hallmark of found footage films and the ubiquitous third-person omnipresence of mainstream productions. Unfortunately, this approach did not ever pan out.
For one thing, the movie drifted away from what makes 1st-person films unique. Namely, the sense of helplessness that comes from being restricted to a very brief range of visual vantage points as the viewer navigates the story with little more than the landscape directly in front of the characters. Another shortcoming of the arsenal of devices in the beginning of the movie was that hardly any them were included in any meaningful way. I mean, these kids were equipped better than most SEAL teams. Certainly, the writers could have found a way to make use of at least some of that gear. I think including the aerial perspective of the forest from a drone could have opened up a world of possibilities. And are at least two dozen ways I can think of off the top of my head to incorporate GPS tracking in the movie (e.g., tracking any character – or part of a character – that goes missing). I mean what’s the point of teasing the viewer with all of this cool equipment if you’re not going to use it?
But if the prospect of advanced technology was an attempt to drive the film in a new direction, a veritable minefield of horror movie clichés fought equally hard to anchor it in more familiar themes. So in addition to irritating characters squandering state-of-the-art equipment and making poor decisions in questionable circumstances, the writers decided to revert to some tried and true horror logic-defying flaws including but not limited to:
Cliché, faulty logic, or obvious plot device
Pulling on a door handle instead of turning the knob
Flashlight winking out for no reason
Someone jumping unexpectedly into the scene out of ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NOWHERE
Character running off in a random direction searching for some other dipshit who got separated from the group
Some idiot screaming at the top of their lungs to locate their friends with no success
Let me take a moment to address this last point.
If you’re lost at night in woods that are purportedly haunted and you lose track of your friends, the one thing you absolutely DO NOT DO is fucking yell for them at the top of your lungs. That’s not going to help anyone and it’s probably going to end up getting you and everyone else in your group killed. Here’s why:
Scenario #1 – They can’t hear you. In this case yelling louder will only give your position away. If they’re hurt or helpless, there’s not much you can do for them anyway. Better to save yourself (to quote Darwin: “fuck ’em”).
Scenario #2 – They can but are deliberately not responding because they fear doing so would give away their position. This usually means they are vulnerable and have likely either seen what it is that is trying to kill them or have witnessed what it is capable of (e.g., eviscerating other campers, skull-fucking a bear, etc.). The more you yell, the more likely it is this thing will find you and eviscerate and/or skull-fuck you.
Scenario #3 – They hear you but rather than being motivated by self-preservation, they actively want this hell-beast to kill you instead, which means that your “friend” is a selfish asshole who’s only looking out for him/herself and doesn’t give a shit about your well-being. In either scenario 2 or 3, your best course of action as the searching party should be to question the value of having such a friend in the first place and ultimately decide that you’re better off without them.
In the end, there were just too many competing priorities by everyone involved in the making of the film but there was no unifying vision of what the end product was supposed to be, which left Blair Witch feeling heavy on ambition but light on substance. Perhaps if they had just stayed true to their roots, it would have been a much better experience.
Get it? Roots? Because the movie takes place in a forest with trees that have…aw, forget it.