Adam Wingard - “Blair Witch”
Blair Witch is an elevation of just about everything that made The Blair Witch Project a bona fide horror classic. Most major studios have it in their heads that bigger-and-better is the way to go, and inevitably confuse that with bigger-therefore-better. It’s an easy mistake to make, because it’s partially true. Many of the greatest sequels are bigger movies than their predecessors, wielding longer runtimes, more creative set pieces, and more complex narratives in an effort to outdo the previous installment, but Blair Witch has the luck of following not just The Blair Witch Project but also Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, a sequel so awful it killed the franchise and left it to rot for sixteen years. With that buffer in place, the only expectations anyone should have going into this installment is that it will be better than the last one.
It is. Blair Witch wipes the slate and splatters it with new blood. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are currently some of the brightest lights in horror and sci-fi, and following You’re Next and The Guest, are on a hot streak Blair Witch effortlessly continues. While the movie can lapse into that bigger-therefore-better mentality (sometimes literally, as our protagonists at one point wake up to dozens and dozens more of those eerie stick-men than we saw in the first movie, hanging from the trees all around their camp), Wingard and Barrett seem to understand that a good sequel isn’t about giving us more of the first, but about developing and building on what worked. They understand that The Blair Witch Project, and horror in general, is about the unknown, and that suggestion is the most powerful weapon in a horror movie’s arsenal. A step further, they understand that terror is about disorientation, something The Blair Witch Project, a movie based on a largely improvised script, does all too well. More than half the time, no one involved in the movie knew exactly what was going to happen or how it was going to turn out. That’s why it’s still capable of terrifying you, even without the assistance of maybe the most successful viral marketing campaign ever.
That’s also what makes it impossible to replicate, but Wingard and Barrett do their best to maintain its spirit. They do an excellent job, for the most part. The plot is organic, accommodating for updated camera tech: Peter, brother to the original film’s Heather, is so convinced that his sister is still alive somewhere in the Black Hills Forest that he takes a blurry YouTube clip as proof and convinces his friends to follow him to a meeting with the couple that uploaded the clip. Together, armed with ear-mounted cameras, the six of them set out into the forest to track her down. The amateurish cinematography and non-sequiturial editing is spot-on, but in an effort to mitigate the “writtenness” of certain scenes and the unspoken understanding between filmmakers and audience that this is indeed a movie, there is a lot of self-aware humor. I was iffy on it. On one hand, it’s trademark for Wingard. You’re Next was built on this sort of thing, and it’s not like the original didn’t feature a corny joke here at there at the outset. On the other, poking fun at horror cliches (“Everyone needs to stop doing that,” says one character after the fifth or so consecutive jump-scare) has become its own unfunny cliche, and depending on the sort of viewer you are, can either relieve some tension or take you out of an otherwise immersive horror experience.
Other additions fare better, the standout being a particularly clever reconfiguration of the established mythology. Now, the Blair Witch was not merely killed, but killed on a “makeshift rack”: strapped high in a tree with her limbs weighted with stones, she was slowly pulled apart over several days. This gives chilling new context to the stick-men and piles of stones when they eventually start appearing outside of tents. The movie reintroduces Rustin Parr, a name mentioned in the original film during one of its early interview segments as a clue to what’s really happening in the forest. This is inexplicably left out of some cuts of the film, so it’s great to see it included here. Lastly, it’s also hinted that reality itself may not be stable in the Black Hills Forest, an intriguing new element that recalls the most interesting parts of 2011’s Grave Encounters. After separating from the group, two characters find their way back, but don’t trust what they see when they get there.
“It’s another trick!” yells one. “When was the last time you saw us?”
“We’ve been out here for six days!”
While these details make Blair Witch a more than worthy sequel, it’s also a horror movie. On that front, it more than delivers - but not the way Project delivers. Rather than attempt the same oppressive terror of the first movie, Blair Witch mainly opts for jump-scares that do not, for once, feel cheap. Rather, they act as strategic mile-markers on the way to the finale inside Rustin Parr’s burned-out house, where the movie goes off the rails in the most glorious way possible, folding and imploding in on itself like some nightmare origami. In a year boasting The Witch, The Conjuring 2, and Don’t Breathe, Blair Witch still manages to offer up some of the most wide-eyed, white-knuckled, scream-into-your-hands sequences of 2016, and in keeping with the movie’s theme of elevation, offers us two more glimpses at the Blair Witch than we got in the first movie - which is to say, we get two glimpses.
And that’s all we need. Watch for them. It’s been over a week since I was able to catch a pre-screening of the film, and my skin is still crawling at the thought of what I saw, and the last words we hear from the Blair Witch’s mouth.
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