In 1999, The Blair Witch Project exploded into American cinemas following an almost unprecedented amount of hype created when the marketing team worked creative angles in an attempt to make people believe the film was a true story. The actors even used their real names as the character names to foster the illusion.
The Blair Witch Project wasn't a true story, of course, and once the hype boiled away everyone was left with the realization that it was mostly about a group of bitchy suburbanites getting lost in the woods and recording their arguments.
And yet the film did hit a cultural nerve. The very rawness of it, the ease with which people could put themselves into the shoes of the main characters, the sheer mundanity of the camping trip to hell, got under the skin of many people. It became a beacon of horror that straddled the boundary between the millenia. People who weren't around when that film came out will have no idea just how much of a cultural explosion this movie made.
The Blair Witch Project certainly wasn't the first found-footage horror film ever made, but it is the one most responsible for opening the contemporary floodgates. Eight years later the genre exploded again with Paranormal Activity. Today we have about 6 no-budget horror movies a month filmed on cameras bought with credit cards, and they all end up on Netflix.
Now, 17 years after The Blair Witch Project, Maryland's Black Hills Forest has opened for camping once again. Blair Witch both follows and expands upon the original story.
Fun Fact: The movie was kept secret while filming, using the title The Woods. This was because the filmmakers were afraid of negative backlash before the movie even came out.
While Blair Witch follows the now-traditional found-footage tropes, it manages to push the technique a little farther out. Let's explore that.
It's A Re-quel.
Technically, Blair Witch is a sequel to the 1999 film. OK, fine, to be super-technical, this is the third Blair Witch movie. But the few people that remember the quick cash-in of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, released in 2000, can safely forget it. That first sequel has no connection to this one.
The plot of this movie follows James, the younger brother of Heather Donahue, who disappeared in the first movie. He finds a YouTube video that may contain clues as to what happened to his sister, so he goes camping with some friends to solve the mystery.
From there, the movie pretty much just follows the same story as the original as the campers tell some stories, get lost, yell at each other... and stumble upon secrets.
So yeah, it's a sequel, but it's also a remake. If you've seen the first one, you've seen 90% of this one, too. But the other 10% makes a pretty big difference.
You Still Have To Accept Found-Footage Traditions
People that don't like found-footage films often object to the false sense of realism created by the technique. Even a quick reflection on the situation destroys any sense of it being true. The same problem applies here. In this movie, one of James's friends wants to record the camping trip for a class documentary. (Natch.) So she puts cameras on everything and everyone she can, filming every moment from every angle... apparently also bringing along an infinite supply of batteries and portable chargers.
Besides a few hand-held cameras, most of the recording devices are mini-cams that attach to the ear like a bluetooth earpiece. The hollow monophonic sound that the cameras would actually record wouldn't sound very good in a movie theater, so of course these cameras record audio in super surround sound with extra bass. And they sometimes come with their own spooky ambient soundtrack. If that's a deal-breaker for you, then this movie falls apart in the first five minutes.
The Story Is Perfect For The Mumblegore Genre
The movie was written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, the mumblegore team that is best known for the indie horror comedy You're Next in 2011.
If you aren't familiar with mumblegore, you aren't alone. It's a recently-named microniche of the horror genre, and a spin-off of mumblecore films. Mumblecore films are ultra-low budget indie films, with little or no actual script - the actors do a lot of improvising. The focus is on the dialogue and relationships between the characters, not the actual plot. (The most famous of this genre is probably Richard Linklater's Before trilogy.)
Blair Witch is mostly people walking around and talking, and we get to see how their relationships are affected by the increasingly strange things going on in the forest. This is material that Barrett and Wingard know how to work with. They have a fairly fresh style, and they use it to good effect here. Even though the story has been told before, they manage to keep the movie interesting to watch.
The Acting is Stronger Than Most Found-Footage Films
The reason found-footage films are so popular to make, besides the fact that almost anyone can make them, is the fact that anyone can star in them. These horror movies are supposed to happen to regular people, so you can hire regular people - usually the director's friends. Bad acting is OK, because the camera work is also bad. It's all bad. But it's natural, so it's good. Get it?
Wingard used decent actors in this movie, and combined with the stronger-than-average script, you actually kind of care about the characters, even though you know that few (or maybe none) of them will live to see the ending. Each member of the cast becomes a unique character, instead of just a placeholder for an upcoming death.
The cast is set up as a trio of partners: James, and Lisa the film student; Peter and his girlfriend Ashley; and the sketchy locals Talia and Lane. Each duo has a different perspective on the events in the woods, and that causes some discomfort on the trip. Even the very brief scene where Peter sees the Confederate flag on Lane's wall is a nice touch that sets up tension between the two. Brandon Scott (who plays Peter) and Wes Anderson (who plays Lane) did a great job of exhibiting a vague uneasiness with each other that flares hot when conflict gets sparked.
Capitalizing On Strengths Of The First Film
No matter how much people say they love The Blair Witch Project, everybody knows it's really only because of a couple of elements. The stick figures in the first movie are creepy. This movie plays with that in a pretty creative way that will catch most people off guard, confounding what the audience is expecting.
There are iconic scenes and moments in the first movie that are paid homage to in this movie, but without copying them outright.
And whether you want to admit it or not, the real punch of the first movie only comes in the very last scene. Wingard and Barrett recognize that and turn the last 30 seconds of the first movie into the last 30 minutes of this movie. It's well shot, well acted, and well done.
It Hints at a Larger Story
The characters in both Blair Witch movies tell each other stories and legends about the witch and the woods she inhabits. But not all of the events in the movies have much to do with the legends. While I think the first movie just got sloppy and let the plot fall apart, this one shows some extra thought behind it. There are things in Blair Witch that don't make sense (such as the foot wound and the extended night-time, among others). But I think this is deliberate. Without drawing attention to itself, the movie ties the end to the beginning in a strange way. There are other quick elements of the movie that are easy to overlook. But if you notice them, and if you look at the big picture, you start to wonder if the problem is not really a witch. At least, not a witch in the sense that we think of them. And yet the movie refuses to explain itself.
As of the time of this writing, I don't know if there will be another Blair Witch movie or not. The legends certainly got bigger and more interesting with this movie, and there is room to explore. We'll just have to wait and see if found-footage horror stays popular long enough to bring out the next chapter.