In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary.
17 years later, twice as many people enter those same woods, and the results are remarkably similar. There are just a lot more names to scream.
Well, that's not entirely fair. I want to delve into the nature of the plot and explore what this movie does to up the stakes, but as a lot of that conversation will be spoiler-filled, first I'll get my recommendation and spoiler-free thoughts out of the way.
Blair Witch is a better film than most reviewers have said. It is also an incredibly flawed film. You should see it.
Our lead character is James, the brother of Heather, who went missing in the first film. When James stumbles across a YouTube video that supposedly shows footage found in the very woods Heather disappeared in, which shows one or two frames of a woman wandering through a dilapidated house, James is convinced it's his sister, and they need to go to the woods to find her. Along for the ride are Lisa, who wants to document the events, and James' friends Peter and Ashley, as well as a couple of obsessed Blair Witch theorists, Lane and Talia. We watch their drone and cool earpiece cam footage, found long after they've gone missing.
If you have issues watching found-footage movies, you'll have them watching Blair Witch. Being that I'm not typically a fan of this particular sub-genre, I can't really comment on whether or not Blair Witch features more or less "shaky cam," but I can tell you that a lot of the scenes are punctuated with camera glitches and the intrusive sound of popping electricity in a way that bugged me. Do cameras even do that?
Furthermore, if you aren't a fan of jump-scares, get ready, this film is packed with them. It's almost rare for there to be a scene in which a character doesn't SUDDENLY BURST ON SCREEN! I understand that jump-scares are part of the deal when you go to see a modern horror movie, and I understand that films like this seek to emulate the vibe of a haunted house (I'll be going to Orlando Horror Nights next month, and I expect Michael Myers to pop out of bushes [just like in Halloween...?]), but I don't have to like it.
Personally, I find it easy to dismiss the shaky cam and the jump-scares, because they've become so common that I barely notice them, but still, you should know they're both strongly featured. The scares that don't fall into those two categories? They're pretty clever. If you're even the least bit claustrophobic, get ready...
Blair Witch is a story where bland characters find an excuse to venture back into the woods. It's a story that takes a lot more chances than you might expect, and while I feel there are a few missed opportunities to make the film a truly great film-going experience, Blair Witch does it's very best to stand on it's own two feet, despite the fact that most will obviously view it as a somewhat of a remake of the original. I particularly appreciate the somewhat controversial decisions they've made. The story goes in a direction I certainly didn't anticipate, and personally I'm glad for it. They already made The Blair Witch Project, lets do something new.
All in all I'd advise any fan of horror to go see Blair Witch, and I'd particularly recommend it to fans of the original, though I might suggest they go in with an open mind.
Time for spoilers.
When I say that I'm impressed by the controversial decisions they've made, I'm specifically talking about three things: the story's loopy timeline, ghosts who pop-in, and the depiction of "the witch."
Allow me to cut to the chase: the very footage that brought them to the woods (a woman's face seen briefly in the mirror of an old deserted house), is footage shot by Lisa at the end of this movie. More than that: the woman in the footage is Lisa. Not only does it provide an interesting twist that James has actually been chasing Lisa this whole time, it struck me as interesting that Lisa and Heather could easily be confused. Both women were first and foremost interested in documenting events in the woods. James has been so obsessed with finding Heather his whole life, is it really any wonder he gravitated toward Lisa? Regardless, we're given our first hint that something is wrong with time when obsessive conspiracy theorists Lane and Talia run away and resurface a day later, claiming 5 days have gone by (see also: Cube 2: Hypercube). Do we believe them? Earlier in the film, Lane and Talia admitted they had hung some of the iconic stick-men in the trees. Couldn't they be lying now? Of course not: by the end of the movie, we meet Lane after yet another impossible length of time, and now he has a full beard. Has it been weeks? Months? Years?
I thought for sure this amorphous timeline would culminate in James coming face to face with Heather. Or: more accurately, coming across a woman in a basement, grabbing her by the shoulder, causing her to drop her camera (roll credits on Blair Witch 1). How could they not do this? Did they think of it? Did Heather Donahue refuse to come back? I was crushed when at best we caught glimpses of a ghost who might be Heather. James locks himself in a bedroom and in a flash of lightning a woman is suddenly in the room, only to disappear a moment later. Does anyone know what I'm talking about? Do I have to go see the movie a second time to confirm? I'll do it. Maybe it was Ashley...
Let me just add that, had they brought Heather into the plot, they could have used Mike, still standing in the corner, to display why you shouldn't ever look at the witch. Distracted by the sudden appearance of James, Mike could have turned, only to be taken and brutalized. Lesson learned for the finale.
This brings us to the witch. I've seen a lot of backlash against the filmmakers for showing her. We already have a movie where they kept her a mystery. They're making a sequel to a polarizing film, with no guarantee of future installments (the box office might have made this more certain). Why not go all the way? What a bold move to not only show the witch, but multiple times? For decades we've lived with the rules that it's scarier to keep the monster unknown or unseen. Jaws practically made it a law. People are quick to recite the rule that movies can never show you something scarier than what you imagine.
Well, Blair Witch pulled it off. Early into the film we're given a new legend about the witch. She was hung from a tree with rocks tied to her arms and legs, like a makeshift rack. The beast we see at the end of the film is large, with overlong limbs, running after us. I loved it.
I'm also not convinced this is actually the Blair Witch. I know, I know, I've already gone too long. I'll state my case another time. Suffice it to say they've created a monster that would kill me of a heart attack before she could even reach me.
The film ends with a tense re-enactment of the original film's iconic selfie shot. Kudos to them for managing to take the camera angle and do something novel with it. In this film they establish that if you look at the witch, she takes you, hence all the standing-in-the-corner in these films (a troublesome retcon of the Rustin Parr tale). When James is tricked by the witch into thinking that Heather is behind him, he turns and is violently pulled out of the film. Lisa is left to turn the camera around and point it backwards over her shoulder, desperately watching the screen to see what's lurking behind her. It's a brilliant move. Of course, though, she's also tricked by the witch, and despite seeing James get wrenched away, she turns, and her camera falls.
Call me crazy, but I think one day the tide will turn for this movie. It's currently taking a beating at the box office and by the critics, but it's a fun film that obviously wants to pay respect to the original while blasting the story and the stakes into outer space. Perhaps literally. I think someday this film will get the respect it deserves, but for now, I'm satisfied. Blair Witch is a tense, clever, nostalgic horror film that didn't leave me wanting anything more. Hell, they even managed to jam in what the stick men are actually for (hint: don't snap them in half). Come to think of it, I almost want one for my collection, is that crazy? I'll just make it myself and keep it somewhere safe.
What did you think of the movie? What did you think of my review? Leave a comment below, and let's get into it. I'm not done with The Blair Witch series just yet. Or maybe the Blair Witch isn't done with me.*
*UPDATE - I was right! Years after writing this review, I became one of the writers of Hunt a Killer's Blair Witch series. As a writer on both seasons of the story/game, I embedded countless easter eggs, played with franchise lore, scripted and directed most of the in-game media, and even played a character in my favorite franchise! Get a box here!