Friday, September 23, 2016

Movie Review: Blair Witch

Blair Witch
Directed by: Adam Wingard. 
Written by: Simon Barrett. 
Written by: James Allen McCune (James), Callie Hernandez (Lisa Arlington), Corbin Reid (Ashley), Brandon Scott (Peter), Wes Robinson (Lane), Valorie Curry (Talia). 
 
I remember when the original Blair Witch Project opened in the summer of 1999 – I was 18 at the time – and it’s hard to describe how much of a game changer the film felt like. No, I wasn’t one of the idiots who actually believed the film to be real (and I didn’t know anyone who did either) – but the film felt like something wholly unique. It didn’t invent the Found Footage genre – and it wasn’t even my first exposure to the genre (that would be the Belgian film Man Bites Dog from 1993) – but it many ways it perfected it. It was a film that actually looked like it was shot by three college kids on cheap video, rather than my professionals trying to make it look like it was shot by three college kids on cheap video. It was a horror film that used no music, no blood, no special effects – but just the dark and some noises. The marketing campaign was ingenious – using the internet in a way that hadn’t really been done before. The film was certainly divisive – especially among audiences more so than critics – but there’s no denying its place in movie history. Oddly though, for a movie that was THAT big of a phenomenon it took a lot of years before the Found Footage genre really took off – into the mostly dreck we have today. It wasn’t really until Cloverfield in 2008 and Paranormal Activity (which did festival screenings in 2007, but not released until 2009) that it really took off. Part of this is probably because of the massive failure of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 – a sequel to the original film that seems like it wanted to appeal to the half of the audience who HATED the original film – as it jettisoned everything that made it unique, and ended up making a boring horror film. Oddly, it has taken the people with the rights to the franchise 16 years to give it another try.
 
Blair Witch plays very much like you would expect a sequel to the original film would. It takes the same basic premise – and makes everything about it bigger. Instead of three kids in the woods, there are now six – instead of actors you don’t recognize, they’ve cast actors you vaguely recognize, but cannot quite place. There is slightly more in the way of special effects going on. The noises are louder, the paranoia is amped up, there are more moments designed specially to scare you with jump screams and scares, etc. That’s the basic Hollywood formula for sequels – the same but BIGGER. The smartest thing the studio did was hire Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett to write and direct the film – their last two films together, You’re Next and The Guest, are both great (The Guest even made my top 10 list that year – and I don’t regret a thing) – and they are among the reasons to be hopeful about the future of American horror films.
 
However, it does seem to me that Wingard and Barrett were perhaps a little too respectful of the original film – and didn’t try hard enough to make a film that can pay tribute to the original film, while establishing itself on its own terms. I’m not saying the pair didn’t make an effective horror film – for the most part they did, the film is genuinely frightening at points. Yet, I don’t really feel like they did enough to twist the premise around. The twists they do have – the never ending night, the introduction of Body Horror that doesn’t really lead anywhere, more exploration of certain places from the original film, etc. don’t feel like enough.
 
This time the film has more characters this time instead of three film students, it’s the brother of Heather from the original, James – his film school friend Lisa, his best friend Peter and his girlfriend Ashely, who venture out into the Black Woods when someone finds a mysterious tape buried there. This is Lane and his girlfriend Talia – locals (who have a Confederate flag hanging in their house – much to the chagrin of Peter, who is black) – who have agreed to take the friends where they found the video. No one has ever been able to find the house from the end of the original film – but the woods are huge – and James thinks it must be close to where the video was found. The six head out into the woods – and at night, of course, weird things start happening – and then they cannot find their way out again. You know things aren’t going to end well.
 
The film is effectively made – and once again, does look like a film shot by a group of kids who don’t much know how to use cameras - this time, they’re all strapped to their heads, in what looks like a Blue Tooth earpieces (although this brings up another question I always have about Found Footage movies culled together from multiple sources – who the hell is supposed to have edited it all together?). The respect Wingard and Barrett has for the original is apparent – he has recreated many of the signature moments, but with the slightest of twists.
 
I think part of the problem with Blair Witch is that you cannot surprise people twice – and you certainly cannot surprise them twice, 17 years apart, when the style that The Blair Witch Project perfected has become fodder from a few dozen crappy horror movies over the past 7 years or so. I kept expecting this Blair Witch to go somewhere truly different and unexpected – more because of the presence of Wingard and Barrett behind the scenes, as they did the truly unexpected with the home invasion genre in You’re Next, and the Carpenter homage of The Guest. It never really does though – so what we’re left with is a highly skilled retread of a better film. It works, sure, but it should be better.

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