WARNING: Mild spoilers for the new Blair Witch sequel film.
I'm finally coming down off the fan-frenzy high of San Diego Comic-Con and I can actually start to parse through the information presented. Trailers, sizzle reels, casting reveals, and screenings; Comic-Con is the quickest way to feel ahead of the curve come this fall. In addition to getting further excited for American Gods, far more intrigued by Riverdale than I expected, and more in love with Wonder Woman than ever, I was among the first audience to get to watch Adam Wingard's newly revealed film, Blair Witch. Now that we're all in on the secret, here's what viewers can expect to look forward to when Blair Witch hits theaters September 16th (trailer below).
Faithfulness To The Blair Witch Project & A Convenient Forgetting of Book Of Shadows
I knew I was watching a Blair Witch film within the first two minutes of the Comic-Con screening of The Woods (which is what the sequel had been temporarily titled to keep the fact it was a Blair Witch sequel under wraps). Considering the scope of this huge secret on the part of Lionsgate, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (the film's director and writer), the film is blatant in its sequel-ness.
Without giving away too much, the film begins with shaky and terror-fueled found footage. I won't reveal what the footage shows, but James Donahue (James Allen McCune, the only one whose real name syncs with his character's name) is showing this YouTube video to his college friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a documentary filmmaker in training.
He believes this footage is proof his sister Heather Donahue, who disappeared in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994, 20 years previous, may have survived in the woods all these years. James' obsessive desire to find a sister he hasn't seen since he was 4 is maybe more dubious than obscure footage being found after all this time, but something has to spur him on past logic and danger. It's a horror film, after all.
As you've probably guessed James, Lisa, two other close friends Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott), and a pair of weirdos, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who posted the original footage to YouTube and act as the group's guides, all venture to the Black Hills. Lisa wants to film James' efforts as a sort of psychological documentary of one man's journey for closure. Once in the forest, they run into similar problems as Heather and her two friends in the first film, but at a more modern horror-style pace. And did I mention it's about 10 times scarier?
Smartly, this sequel ignores the second film of the series, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and is more of a true sequel to the original. Book of Shadows wasn't even a found footage film and focuses on fans of the film who go looking for the Blair Witch on their own, running into more contrived and obvious horrors than the first film's characters. It's probably one of the most dishonest sequels ever, as far as dedication to the source material. Wingard's film makes up for this unfortunate follow-up in spades.
Updated Technology And Sound Design For The Win
The first film was notorious for making audiences sick. The handheld camerawork and early '90s cameras made for a grainy and dizzying viewing. In many ways, this added to the scares and certainly heightened the tension since it made the entire film more realistic. The question of whether or not it was fact or fiction made this first iteration of found footage-style filmmaking the most plausible of any of the hundreds that would follow it.
While plenty of films have gotten clever with how they implement filming methods — after all, it's just not believable anybody would film every second of their most frightening moments — Blair Witch utilizes modern technology. The four core friends of the film wear earpiece cameras. How the girls manage to never flip their hair in front of those cameras, or how the voices of the people wearing the cameras don't sound absurdly loud are things you can either get hung up on or ignore. Only a few times are there shots where I wondered who exactly was filming. They also have a drone camera, which I thought would come in more handy, but isn't used all that much.
The sound design especially helps modernize the film. The ambiguous noises of the forest were certainly scary in the original film, but they are greatly amplified and used to better effect in Blair Witch. My one complaint will be that okay sure, someone found all this footage and edited it together, but why didn't they bother to edit out microphone pops or digital noise? Of course, the film is more jarring with them in, but one would hope an editor of found footage would have had a more delicate ear.
A Subtle Twist That's Scary As Shit
Overall I'd say I kept expecting the film to have a more easily identified Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett feel. Both You're Next and The Guest have a distinctiveness unique to the director-writer duo — granted, it's often partly due to the use of music, which is faithfully absent from Blair Witch for obvious reasons. It's hard to exactly describe their style but I'd call it "charming." There's subtle humor, and that is most definitely represented in Blair Witch, but their previous films have also seemed smarter.
I thought for a while watching the film that that cleverness wasn't really going to manifest, that this was simply an updated but faithful sequel to The Blair Witch Project. And it is. Wingard and Barrett do build more on the mythology that pushed Heather Donahue to go searching in the woods. The original film does most of its world building by using footage of locals telling their stories about the Blair Witch. This new film tells a few tales through locals Talia and Lane, but mostly, it just shows more, more but not too much.
There is a twist and it takes the entirety of the film to be revealed, managing to be subtle and elevate the bendy, trippy, final confrontation to a level the first film never reached. Those who like to discuss the lore behind the film will find this addition extra juicy.
A Faithful Sequel AND Fantastic Stand Alone Horror Film
Horror movie sequels are a dime a dozen and found footage franchises are especially prolific, but I'm happy to report that Blair Witch, perhaps in part because of the perfect amount of time between films, is an excellent horror film in its own right. Those who skipped the first film will have no problem jumping in, and those who are longtime fans (like Wingard clearly is) will enjoy all the references and the faithfulness to the original.
In a world of sub-rate horror and in a year of franchise exploitation, Blair Witch sets the bar on multiple categories. It's a good thing the film comes at the end of summer; we'll all be wanting to take a break from camping for a while.
I can't wait to discuss the film when it's released September 16, 2016. Are you excited for this top secret sequel?