Blair Witch (Adam Wingard, 2016) **½ out of 4 stars
Neither particularly exceptional nor exceptionally dumb, Blair Witch exists in that gray area of sequeldom where we don’t emerge from its dark depths puzzled at its raison d’être, yet nor do we find it an absolutely necessary movie. The world didn’t need a sequel to the low-budget juggernaut The Blair Witch Project, from 1999, but it is not the worse for it, either. Reasonably entertaining and scary, with compelling enough characters, this revisiting of the peekaboo haunted house in the woods (now you see it, now you don’t) and its horrific inhabitant (whatever you do, don’t look at the witch) benefits from a mostly smart script by Simon Barrett and equally competent direction from Adam Wingard (regular collaborators, whose last effort was The Guest), yet also falters with its continuation of the by-now-clichéd use of fake found footage and insistence on sending its characters off into the dark forest, alone, where bad things are sure to happen. That’s a horror movie trope, for sure, but even so, it’s time to let it go.
James (James Allen McCune) has never gotten over the disappearance, many years ago, of his older sister, when she and two friends vanished while making a documentary (the subject of the first film) about the infamous Blair Witch of Burkittsville, Maryland. Now he plans to return to the same woods with a documentary crew of his own to search for clues about her whereabouts, since new evidence (a lost tape) has just been found nearby. Along for the experience come co-director, and potential girlfriend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez); best friend Peter (Brandon Scott); Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid); and two locals, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who claim to know the area. That’s twice the number of victims – excuse me, filmmakers – as the first time around, yet, not surprisingly, no amount of numbers or fancy new equipment (including a drone) will matter once the supernatural shenanigans begin. It’s a cast of relative unknowns, which means we have no preconceptions about who might, or should, last until the end. Unfortunately, at some point, most of them are reduced to running and screaming in the dark; so, once again, it’s the sound design that takes over.
About that sound. In the first film, very little was ever shown, and The Blair Witch Project went on to set the template for most of the point-of-view horror movies to come (there would be Paranormal Activity without it). It was all reaction to the imagined nightmare of what we could hear in the distance. Here, Wingard and Barrett follow the same principle, only they up the ante of aural craziness. Like a cross between a film about lumberjacks and Cloverfield (another found-footage movie), the sounds of crashing trees and monster sounds emerge from the dark to fill in the blanks of what we do not see. It still works, which is good, because sometimes when we do see the action, it’s cut too jarringly for specifics to register. Or, when they do register, they make no sense, which is one the major weaknesses of the film; the other is that it hints at additional story lines that ultimately go nowhere. Some examples: two of the characters are African-Americans, while two others proudly display a Confederate flag, yet this racial tension dissipates as soon it arises; a foot wound behaves strangely, but the payoff is never explained or even used that well; the script builds upon the earlier story’s use of time displacement, yet ultimately never advances that concept beyond its original inception. It’s good fun, though, and if it doesn’t reinvent the genre, at least, at 89 minutes, it quits just as it’s getting old.