Monday, September 19, 2016

BLAIR WITCH is an Enjoyable But Unremarkable Retread


- Growing up in a small town in suburban Connecticut, the world of Hollywood movie-making seemed like something that happened a world away. Though I loved writing and being creative, it didn't quite occur to me as a kid that "making movies" was in any way a valid potential career path. But several movies that I saw in high school and college began to change my perception, and made me think "hmm, maybe I could take a crack at that." One of those movies for me - and, I've got to imagine, for a whole generation of would-be filmmakers - was The Blair Witch Project. The idea that someone could go out into the woods and shoot a movie on a standard-issue video camera, in a home-movie style, but still tell a scripted, narrative story that was compelling and downright scary - that to me was an irresistibly awesome concept. Soon after seeing The Blair Witch Project, some friends and I - fellow camp counselors at the summer camp I worked at - took a camera into the woods behind my house and began crafting our own Blair Witch parody. I mean - wow! - we could make a movie on our own that looked just like an actual movie playing in theaters. Pretty damn cool. Plus, The Blair Witch Project completely fed into my growing fascination with stories that blurred the line between reality and fiction. Horror by its very nature bleeds into real-life. Made-up stories cause real fear, real phobias, real anxieties. Stories presented as folklore and urban legend make us unsure what's true and what's embellishment. So the logical extension are horror stories that present themselves as real. The Blair Witch Project did everything it could to present itself as real, and back then, in the days before social media, it was hard to debunk the movie's mythology. If you wanted to believe, you could. So while The Blair Witch Project wasn't the greatest horror movie, per se, it was and is one of the most influential. And now, we have another.

Unlike the quick-turnaround Blair Witch 2 - which tried to quickly capitalize on the success of the original by going full traditional-horror movie - BLAIR WITCH is a return to the found footage horror genre that the first film pioneered. In fact, BLAIR WITCH is a legit sequel to the original, picking up years later and following the younger brother of Heather from the first movie - now searching for his sister in hopes that she may still somehow be alive.

BLAIR WITCH comes to us from two of the absolute best in the biz right now when it comes to innovative genre filmmaking - director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. I'm a huge fan of this team, having previously raved about their horror movie You're Next and its follow-up, the genre-mash thriller The Guest. I was really excited to see what these guys would do with the Blair Witch franchise. But unfortunately, whether it was due to their own decision or due to studio mandate, what they do is essentially stick to the formula. BLAIR WITCH is almost too reverent of the original film - giving us extremely similar story beats and moments, but without the kind of innovation that would have allowed it to really stand on its own. Sure, there are the obligatory technology upgrades - our protagonists now have GPS and drone-cameras - but those additions feel somewhat tacked-on. It's a good example of innovative storytelling vs. simply modernizing. I think about the third Paranormal Activity movie, which wowed with the simple addition of its characters placing a camera on a rotating fan. Simple, but ingenious. Here, there was never that one amazing moment where I thought "wow, really cool use of that drone" or "clever way to integrate GPS into the story." If nothing else, all the tacked-on tech seems to sort of undermine the bare-bones, lost-in-the-woods feel that made the original so memorable.

My other issue here is that the movie is jump-scare overload. Which is weird, because Wingard's You're Next was part of the whole modern indie horror movement - a movement which seems to consciously try to avoid an over-reliance on jump-scares in favor of clever plotting and psychological depth. But yeah, BLAIR WITCH is jump-scare city, and worse, it's got tons of "fake" jump-scares that ultimately don't amount to anything - one of my biggest pet-peeves of the horror genre. That sort of speaks to the movie's overall feeling of messiness. I get that part of the whole found-footage aesthetic is the idea of making the viewer feel disoriented. But there's too much in BLAIR WITCH that feels random and arbitrary as opposed to part of a larger whole. Too many times when a loud noise gets everyone scared, where some unseen force causes the ground to quake, where an invisible entity drags someone around without any seeming endgame. It gives the movie a real funhouse feel. And I'm guessing that's what Wingard was going for - but again, it seems to be trying to pay homage to the original, yet missing a lot what made the original so effective. This movie's constant barrage of sound and fury and nonstop pace made me better appreciate the more methodical, grounded approach of the original.

What might have made BLAIR WITCH more interesting is if it really went full-tilt in another direction from the first film, and just went as weird and trippy as possible. The movie shows hints of a strange side that never quite materializes. There are a couple of scenes of gross-out body horror that don't ever really reach a notable climax. There are some interesting concepts around time and time-loops (seriously) that momentarily perked me up, but that are never really developed. Basically, you kind of get the sense that Wingard and co had some out-there concepts that they wanted to explore in this movie, but ultimately we mostly just get teases that don't really pay-off.

So is the new BLAIR WITCH a total dud? I wouldn't go that far. It's entertaining for what it is - a shake-you-'til-you're-dizzy thrill ride. The characters all work well, and the dynamic between them is strong. James Allen McCune and Callie Hernandez are solid leads. And what actually works best about the movie is its first half - when things are still mysterious and we're getting bits and pieces of the movie's mythology doled out to us via hushed campfire chats and friendly banter that takes a turn for the spooky. When BLAIR WITCH does allow time for quieter moments, it really seems to work well. I'm just not sure that it does as well with its more frenetic segments. Overly long and dizzyingly-staged, the movie's chase and escape scenes don't exactly play well to the strengths of found-footage.

I enjoyed BLAIR WITCH overall - and I'm guessing that those too young to have seen the original will get an extra kick out of seeing this concept play out for the first time. Certainly, there are moments in this one that bring to mind the magic of the first film. But there also isn't all that much that's truly unique or memorable. A fun ride and a serviceable nostalgia trip, but also a bit of a step backwards for the Wingard/Barrett duo (the most Wingard/Barrett thing about the movie was probably its stealth, viral marketing campaign - in which the movie formerly known as "The Woods" was revealed to in fact be a surprise Blair Witch sequel). When given free reign to innovate, these guys are among the best in the biz. But even they can't make this Blair Witch retread a must-see.

My Grade: B-

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