Monday, September 19, 2016

Into The Woods

For our podcast episode about this very film, click here.

Year: 2016
Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I like the output of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett more than I like the legacy of The Blair Witch Project. The 1999 found footage phenomenon was a masterpiece of grassroots viral marketing, but the film itself is only a passable entry in the genre. And the less I think about its quick and dirty follow-up Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the happier I’ll be. So unlike many rabid fans, I am very open to new blood in this stunted franchise.

I’ve been a fan of Wingard and Barrett’s partnership since their 2013 magnum opus You’re Next and their bubblegum action smash The Guest. They tend to blend genres in an exciting, refreshing manner, and Wingard’s directing has been blossoming as his visual toolbox develops. When I heard they were both being plunked into a found footage shocker, I was skeptical about whether or not this stripped-down methodology would hinder their progress, but hoped it might allow them to focus on making a singularly terrifying movie, which is something they haven’t accomplished just yet.

It’s nice to want things.

In Blair Witch, film student Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez) is making a documentary about her friend James (James Allen McCune) and his unresolved grief. You see, his sister Heather disappeared in the Maryland woods some 15 years ago. When a tape of her disappearance surfaces online, he gathers Lisa and his friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) to trek out into the woods to find the abandoned house depicted in the tape and hopefully find out what became of her. They reluctantly allow the local Witch-philes Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) to tag along with them, because they know the location where the tape was found.

It’s only a matter of time before things start getting weird. They get lost, hear mysterious noises at night, see strange apparitions, and generally discover the reason why nobody should ever go camping.

Seriously, camping’s the worst.

Is Blair Witch a scarier film than The Blair Witch Project? Oh, effortlessly. But is it a better film? That’s where things get a little dicey. As a 2016 found footage film, it has the disadvantage of audience overfamiliarity, and it doesn’t do much to steer itself away from a lot of the clichés of modern POV horror. Why do these people keep filming when sh*t hits the fan? Who cares. (Their cameras are mostly head-mounted, which is a good excuse for recording during the climax, but the characters rather emphatically turn their cameras on for no blessed reason at the weirdest possible times so we can get valuable exposition.) And who invited this unpleasant extraneous couple? Well, we needed a higher body count. And where the hell is that droning, atonal score coming from that’s trying desperately to avoid being noticed? Well, I’ve never had an answer for that one.

The thing that sucks is that the silence in Blair Witch is so eerily, awe-inspiringly complete, it would be far more disturbing if all we could hear was the characters breathing and the whir of a camera. The sound design was good enough to have pulled it off, but the misstep of including any sort of score, no matter how subtle, reeks of a lack of confidence, exposing the movie’s artifice in the process.

Plus, being an honest continuation of The Blair Witch Project means you inherit all of its problems. Notably, the mythology of the Blair Witch herself gets a little fuzzy in favor of providing startling scares. Obviously, we’re not meant to truly understand how this shadowy, unknowable menace operates, but there are so many ingredients thrown into this stew that it just turns into mud. Combining ghostly apparitions, Satanic magic, creature features, body horror, and time warp sci-fi into a single narrative, Blair Witch completely fails to build a coherent menace, making it difficult to understand and thus be invested in the characters’ plights, even if individual moments are tremendously creepy.

Including, but not limited to, this guy’s uncanny resemblance to a loathed classmate of mine.

And thus concludes the section where I’m perhaps unfairly critical toward Blair Witch. Although it never feels quite like a unified whole, the sum of those parts is still pretty freaky. After ramping up with a punishingly long opening act, Blair Witch slips easily into pure terror, crafting images that harness the corner-of-your-eye imagination of the original film while giving the audience a sumptuous visual meal thanks to its higher budget.

There is some Gross. Sh*t. in Blair Witch, you guys. A lot of the most terrifying images are reminiscent of other horror favorites, but they’re presented in an electrifying new way that keeps you on your toes. The second and third acts do what a proper horror roller coaster should, keeping you reeling and cringing at a manic pace. There are a couple of longer setups with payoffs that fall flat, but it’s a heap of fun just the same.

I feel this need to temper most of my praise, because the problems in Blair Witch are numerous and frustrating, but they pale in comparison to its raw energy and power. It’s a fun campfire movie, and I wouldn’t take that away from anyone. It may not be changing the course of horror as we know it, but it’s an excellent Blair Witch Project sequel that manages to bring on the jolts, even if it’s hardly the all-encompassing phenomenon of the original.

TL;DR: Blair Witch is a solid, frightening sequel, even if it doesn't quite cohere.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 950
Reviews In This Series
The Blair Witch Project (Myrick & Sanchez, 1999)
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (Berlinger, 2000)
Blair Witch (Wingard, 2016)


  1. I will not be seeing this in theaters, if at all. There is absolutely no way I make it through a theatrical screening without throwing up. And, yet, I am still awfully curious. (Incidentally, do you know that I've never gotten sick on a roller coaster? Odd, right?)

    "and time warp sci-fi"

    Spoilers for various things, I guess, but:

    ...When did everyone sit down and decide that this was going to be the hot new horror cliche? Insidious 2, Paranormal Activity: Mexican-American Edition, and now this? I suppose it could still be clever, but that's a whole lot of haunters with the same hard-on for supernatural time loops to have been released within three years of each other.

    1. P.S. not trying to be flip with the title of Paranormal Activity 3 1/2 (4 1/2?) (Actividad Paranormal?) I honestly just can't remember what its name was and really, really didn't feel like spending the ten seconds required to look it up.

    2. No offense taken, especially considering that "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" is the most forgettable name ever conceived. And I don't know if I'd consider it a severe spoiler, because it takes up about 12 seconds of screentime and is never really addressed.

      Theatrical found footage movies make you throw up? I'm sorry to hear that, it's a real shame. My stomach is about as strong as a jellyfish when it comes to roller coasters, but I can devour found footage flicks like it's my job. Which I guess it kinda is, come to think of it.

  2. Yeah, but I sounded kinda-vaguely racist, so I figured I'd walk it back a little bit. (On the other hand, "Paranormal Activity: Now With Fewer Unaccountably Rich White People!" was indeed the major marketing drive behind that movie's existence, so either way, I guess.)

    Anyway, the last found footage picture I saw in theaters was the first Paranormal Activity, which isn't even that intense of a found footage horror film. It only failed to make me throw up because when I excused myself to go throw up, I managed to get myself back down to only 90% sick, rather than 100%, Linda Blair sick. I've seen plenty of handheld camera films on the big screen since then (and, unsurprisingly, they have a tendency to make me sick! e.g. Captain Phillips), but have forsworn found footage in the multiplex.

    That said, I sometimes manage to catch them at home. They do still tend to make me a little uncomfortable (Cloverfield was borderline-unwatchable; Earth to Echo was pretty much fine), but I can at least control the environment. Sometimes it's more-or-less worth it. I liked Grave Encounters. That was fun.