Marketing keeps much of Film Twitter alive and a good portion of chat there lately has been dedicated to the latest Wingard/Barrett joint which begun its promotional life as The Woods. However during Comic Con it was instead revealed to be a many years later "true" sequel to The Blair Witch Project, a film which itself pretty much heralded the start of online marketing with its truly inspired promotional campaign. Director/Writer team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are all-time DAAM MVP's thanks to their previous effort The Guest, a film for which Marc and I recorded a commentary track (available in our podcast archive here for those interested) so I came at it with a great deal of interest and having watched the original the night before, I was very much looking forward to getting lost in those woods again.
It takes a great deal of balls to try and follow up The Blair Witch Project and while Joe Berlinger didn't succesfully make the leap with his still rather interesting Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, Wingard and Barrett instead seek to both homage and expand on the original while also trying to find ways of making it work in the modern age, a time where GPS and social media are just two ways of making it harder for people to legitimately disappear. There are a great many balls chucked in the air with this tale and not all are caught.
It is first disappointing to say that despite a marketing campaign heavy of trying to convince you that this is a new high benchmark for scares in cinema, the film does little innovative to actually get the jumps out of you. For a large portion of the runtime, the scares are dictated by sudden loud noises, two in quick succession at one time which even inspire a comment by a character within the film, a bizarre bit of meta-commentary which rather pulled me out) and sudden blips in the film's "found footage" editing which are the usual domain of films with far less ambition than this.
The climax of Blair Witch is where the atmosphere does start to work its magic with some fun notions of reality itself being distorted entering into the mix and conjuring a nightmarish, oppressive mood which would have done well to have been introduced earlier. By then however, you may well have disconnected from the film thanks to the fact that no one is all that engaging either.
Considering this is from the guys who gave us Sharni Vinson in You're Next and Maika Monroe in The Guest, it's a real shame that our lead here, Callie Hernandez's Lisa is hampered with a character who is by turns quietly manipulative and then girl in distress whom you care little for given some of her early behaviour. Joining her is James Allen McCune who a bit of a wet blanket as James, a character whose entire arc is hamstrung with some pretty damn stupid thinking even at the start of the film let alone as shit starts to get weird (to say more would be spoilerish but just consider his reasons for going...). The rest of the cast are token best friend, best friend's girlfriend, stoner and stoner's girlfriend roles adding nothing of all that much note.
It is somewhat harsh to compare the cast here to the original's but there are little things from the "real" way in which that was filmed which aren't maintained here. The central trio of The Blair Witch Project look more and more frazzled as they go on and here everyone just continues to look dirtier. Acting scared and being scared are two very different things and while the original's cast weren't long-term actors, they had a core of beliveability which still exists today which these folks just can't replicate.
Where things could also get interesting, but never quite pulls it off, is in the film's attitude towards technology. At the start, the characters have cameras, GPS and a drone but this is all stripped away leaving for the most part in the climax some rather old-school tech showing the action, some obviously loving homage which was fun to see on a big screen. This idea of technology being able to aid is essentially thrown out the window by the very nature of supernatural forces being able to get past it with ease and while in this day and age you have to acknowledge this, the film seems to play it up rather more than the end result would make you think it should have.
It's hard not to feel disappointed in Blair Witch, especially if you're a fan of the filmmakers as I am. While respectful to the original and attempting to do things to widen the mythology, it also hits many derivative notes and does little to make them its own. Seeing it on a big screen will give you the requisite amount of jumps but it'll not do much more than that, and that's a damn shame.