Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: Blair Witch (2016)

Blair Witch (2016)

Rated R for language, terror and some disturbing images

Score: 3 out of 5

Seventeen years later, The Blair Witch Project remains a film that has never been truly replicated. Found footage wasn't unknown at the time, but it was a novel idea for a theatrically-released film in 1999 with a Hollywood marketing budget behind it, and its take on that now-timeworn genre, one that relied heavily on improv on the actors' part to sell its aura of authenticity, still stands out amidst a plethora of films that, save for their first-person perspectives, are otherwise shot like conventional horror movies. Its conceit of being not just "based on a true story", but an actual recovered document of what had happened to these people, turned out to be an idea that only worked once, as later films like The Fourth Kind and The Devil Inside wound up getting laughed out of theaters when they tried that stunt again. It was the film that foreshadowed the future of entertainment in the age of social media and viral marketing, one where the line between celebrities' real lives and the characters they play is blurrier than ever, but one that could only have been made before that future arrived, lest people find out that Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard were actually still alive. The closest thing I've seen to a film since then that even tried to do something similar was Sickhouse, a film released this year that, notably, originally "premiered" on the Snapchat account of its star Andrea Russett, presented as a live account of some spooky things happening to her and her friends -- and by all accounts, it didn't do it half as well as The Blair Witch Project did it. Even this film's own sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, had to go for a post-modern angle that directly commented on the media phenomenon that the original film became (or at least, such was the writer/director's intent before studio meddling kicked in), and it wound up being a notorious bomb that killed any hope of starting a franchise.

Regardless, with '90s nostalgia in full bloom and Gen-X filmmakers who were teens and twentysomethings at the time now in a position where they can both look back nostalgically on The Blair Witch Project and throw around some serious weight in Hollywood, the chance of a remake, reboot, or sequel climbed with each passing year. What nobody saw coming, however, was how out-of-the-blue the announcement was. It was known that the director/writer team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, makers of You're Next and The Guest, were working on a found-footage horror movie called The Woods that would be coming out in September 2016, but when they did a screening of that film at the San Diego Comic-Con this past July, they dropped a bombshell: the film was actually titled Blair Witch. Much like 10 Cloverfield Lane, here we had a horror sequel that, under a fake title, snuck up on unsuspecting movie fans until just two months before its release.

I wish I can say that I enjoyed Blair Witch as much as I did 10 Cloverfield Lane, because as it stands, the story of its production and marketing, almost an inversion of the original film's strategy, is probably the most interesting thing about it. However, while it's not Wingard and Barrett's best film by a long shot, it's still an acceptable horror movie that, while nowhere near as revolutionary as its inspiration, still has a few tricks up its sleeve. It's at its strongest during the first act and the climax, though it drags in the middle, raising ideas that it never fully capitalizes on. It's clear that Wingard and Barrett are big-time fanboys of the original film, and what they've made is basically, for better or worse, a fan film, hitting all the familiar beats of The Blair Witch Project but with a larger cast, an actual script, and more special effects. Whether or not you enjoyed the original film may be a double-edged sword -- if you liked the original, you may appreciate this film's nods and call-backs, but you may also dislike how it doesn't really shake up the found footage formula, while if you disliked the original, you may dislike this one on principle alone, but you may also like how it contains a bit more "action" beyond its characters running around lost in the woods. As it is, I give this a recommendation, but a very cautious one.

This story takes place twenty years after the events of the original film, in which three student filmmakers mysteriously vanished in the Black Hills Forest outside Burkittsville, Maryland, their recovered footage implying that they were killed by the ghost of an 18th-century witch who had also been connected to three other murder and disappearance cases in the town in the years prior. Our protagonist is James Donahue, Heather's younger brother who was a little kid when his sister vanished, and has been obsessed with the case ever since. When a video purporting to show Heather still alive surfaces, James gathers his friends Lisa, Peter, and Ashley on a trip to Burkittsville, and together with the local guides Lane and Talia, who discovered the video in the first place, they head off into the woods armed with all manner of high-tech equipment -- GPS, a drone, earpiece cameras for everyone -- as they look for what they hope to be Heather.

Right away, the multiple-camera setup, complete with cutting between different angles, makes it clear that this is going to be a more conventional found footage film than the original Blair Witch Project was. While Wingard and Barrett are extremely affectionate in their homage to that film, they oddly miss the one element that makes it continue to stand out to this day: its unscripted, improvised, almost reality-show feel. This is ostensibly a sequel, but in practice, it feels like a big-budget remake more than anything, following the familiar beats of the original for most of its runtime. Most of the famous scenes, from the discovery of the stick figures and rock piles to the gang losing the map (or in this case, their GPS and their camera drone) to Josh's disappearance to Heather's monologue, are either replicated or otherwise nodded to. As such, the middle of the film, from the start of the second act when the characters arrive in the woods up until the climax when it starts to finally chart its own course, has something of a "been there, done that" feel to it. It's still a competent found footage movie, with the actors being acceptable and a number of scenes packing some solid scares, but it doesn't rise above the pack, with way too many false jump scares for my liking. While I thought the actors were acceptable all around, I found the two lead characters James and Lisa to be the least interesting of the bunch, with James' reasons for wanting to find Heather (it's been twenty years, dude, she's probably dead) never fleshed out and Lisa having virtually no defining traits beyond "James' girlfriend". Lisa does get a lot more interesting during the climax as she fights for survival, but it's too little, too late. The two of them should've had more of the little moments that Peter and Ashley got, like when Peter (who is black) first meets Lane at his house and sees a giant Confederate flag hanging in his living room. Peter is suspicious of Lane for the rest of the film, the reason why going unstated but clearly implied by that earlier scene. Later, Ashley cuts her foot on a rock while the gang is crossing the creek where, years ago, a young girl had mysteriously vanished (they all took off their shoes and socks to keep them dry); as the film progresses, it's implied that Ashley's wound isn't just infected, but that an evil entity got into her body through that cut. I wish this had been built upon more, not just serving as background flavor for scary scenes.

That said, when this film finally enters its last fifteen minutes, it soars. The finale is built upon claustrophobia and darkness as Lisa and James explore a house that is haunted by the Blair Witch. The tunnel scene was, without a doubt, the highlight of the entire film, as you wait for Lisa to be suddenly yanked back as she tries to push through the tight, narrow passageways beneath the house, giving the witch all the time in the world to catch up to her. (Though the final shot was just... really? What the hell?) This is what the rest of the film should've been: taking familiar moments from the original and putting a new spin on them, not just replicating them with more special effects and the addition of modern technology. I also liked some of the ideas raised over the course of the film, most notably the idea that the witch has power over time and is causing all manner of temporal shenanigans (hence why their GPS doesn't work -- those satellites didn't exist in the olden days), as well as one reveal towards the end of the film that I won't spoil. This was where the Wingard and Barrett that made You're Next came out to play, doing something truly different that still respected the original film. I just wish that there were more scenes like that last reel or so.

The Bottom Line:

It was somewhat disappointing, but not too badly so. It's not the revolution that its predecessor was, and it only gets really good during the beginning and end, but between those brief moments of greatness and inspiration and the fact that, even at its worst, this film isn't truly bad, I still enjoyed it. Worth a matinee or a rental.

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