Blair Witch attempts to do for the 1999 experimental horror film what Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both achieved last year: Resurrect classic stories by essentially retelling them, with an eye toward satisfying a modern audience with a few extra million dollars of studio polish.
But the challenge taken on by writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) is a much taller order, creatively speaking. Both the original Star Wars and Rocky helped established what viewers today consider mainstream crowd-pleasers. The Blair Witch Project is slow, sparse, ugly, unlikeable, and pitch black. Cultural opinion of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s ridiculously profitable ($248 million worldwide on a $60,000 budget) found footage movie is still somehow split between boring and horrifying. (Pro tip: it’s a work of genius.) So all Barrett and Wingard had to do was make a fast-paced slow burn with scares laced throughout; create generally likeable characters who constantly bicker with each other; and show restraint when it comes to the central mystery, but don’t be too ambiguous.
Somehow, Blair Witch manages to strike a balance between pleasing the fans of the 1999 found-footage film and working as a Friday night at the multiplex, mainly by sticking to the principle that what you don’t see will always be scarier.
The action picks up in 2014, 20 years after the disappearance of Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Mike Williams somewhere in the Black Hills forest in Maryland. Heather’s brother, James, believes that he’s found evidence that his sister may still be alive somewhere in the woods. Armed with an array of 21st-century camera tech, including a drone and earpiece cameras, James and three friends head into the trees, where—suffice it to say—things get spooky.
Anyone familiar with The Blair Witch Project already knows how the new film is structured. The group gets increasingly more lost as the scares get bigger and bigger. But a nice feature of Blair Witch is the expansion of the original’s underlying mythology, featured most prominently in the Sci-Fi Channel special Curse of the Blair Witch. The new film maintains the same tenor of modern-day folklore, adding a sense of dread that feels almost naturalistic and born of the land.
For the most part, Blair Witch takes advantage of its larger budget. The footage is cleaner, even beyond what technological advances would allow for the student documentary that it’s supposed to be. Most of the footage looks straight out of a studio movie. But there’s also some playfulness with the budget, including one terrifyingly claustrophobic sequence in an underground tunnel. Some elements like the drone, however, feel underutilized.
Blair Witch is the Hollywoodication of a film that defied the industry, and it works because of the profound respect for the original that hides beneath camera work that’s too good and a cast that’s too attractive. It is slightly discouraging, though, that this is essentially the closest Hollywood could ever come to making something as odd and truly haunting as The Blair Witch Project. B