Wednesday, September 14, 2016

THE BLAIR WITCH (2016)



USA/2016
Directed By: Adam Wingard
Written By: Simon Barrett
Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid
In Theaters: September 16, 2016

In 1999 The Blair Witch Project took the film world by storm and became the most successful independent film to date. The marketing campaign had audiences convinced what they were about to see was real and that the three stars had actually gone missing in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary about a local legend known as The Blair Witch. To this day that film is a textbook example of successful minimalist horror. It also helped spawn the found footage film craze that is still popular to this day. A sequel was released a year later using the original film as a plot device but it was received poorly. A decade and a half later there had been no talk of reviving the series. The original was still praised and talked about while the sequel had largely been swept under the rug. Then in July of 2016 at the San Diego Comic Con the film, which had been produced and was being marketed under the title "The Woods" to keep the true identity a secret, screened and the world found out that BLAIR WITCH would be released in just two short months and the anticipation built around the trailers that looked to be a much more direct sequel that falls right in line in terms of style with the original. Will a direct sequel to a very low budget minimalist horror film shot entirely through a point of view style with a found footage angle work with studio backing? I suppose that depends entirely on what you want THE BLAIR WITCH to be...

James' sister Heather was one of the three people to disappear in the original Blair Witch Project and recently a tape has surfaced online after being found by local Burkittsville residents Lane and Talia which contains a brief image of a girl that James believes could be Heather. James' journey is being filmed for a documentary project by Lisa and they're joined by their friends Ashley and Peter. They're quickly joined by Lane and Talia after a quick meeting to discuss the tape they found and the locals bring them to the woods where they found the tape. The group continues into the woods until they set up camp for the night. Loud strange noises fill the night and the group awakens to find the infamous stickman figures from the first film surrounding their tents. It's soon revealed that Lane planted these fakes around to create a viral video causing a rift in the two groups and they go their own way. It's at this point that BLAIR WITCH full descends into familiar horror film territory.

Much of the first two acts of THE BLAIR WITCH is similar to the 1999 film using an isolated location and strange occurrences as the tension building and fear inducing tactics. Seemingly walking in circles, time passing at alarming rates that don't make sense, coming back in contact with Lane and Talia after one day though having them claim several days have passed, the return of the stickman figures. These are scare tactics on the minimalist side of the horror spectrum that worked before and were fairly successful again this time.

THE BLAIR WITCH goes for a bigger and more in your face style however, adding on to those subtle elements with much more graphic supernatural and psychological scares including an almost voodoo doll-like effect with the stickman figures, fleshing out the Blair Witch with pretty clear albeit fleeting glimpses of this monstrous, flesh colored, almost spider-like creature with harsh angles in its joints. There's enough horror cliches to go around including a plethora of jump scares, characters being dragged away from the camera by an unseen force, and simply awful decision making just to name a few. There's also a couple gross out moments and moments of comedy which unfortunately broke the tension.

Adam Wingard is not a bad director, with entries into the anthology films V/H/S, V/H/S 2, and  The ABCs Of Death along with features "You're Next" and one of my personal favorites The Guest under his belt, Wingard has become a household name to horror fans. He's made some very good stuff, and his frequent collaboration with writer Simon Barrett has served them both well. I won't say I love everything they've done but when I see their names attached to a project I at least pay attention. I was pleased to see the duo attached to THE BLAIR WITCH and I can't say they made a bad film. I just don't think they made the film I wanted or expected. But this is probably the movie I should have expected.

The thought that immediately came to mind is that this film is is The Blair Witch Project by way of Evil Dead 2. THE BLAIR WITCH hits all of the major stepping stones that the original film has from the documentary setup, to the stickmen and paranoia of the woods, and the finale in the witch's house. It also plays to the ADD of the current movie going audience. Instead of a delicious simplicity it goes for bigger louder and by default, dumber. It's not that I think Evil Dead 2 is dumber, but I think it is much bigger and louder than its predecessor and that is what this film does. It has a much (much) bigger budget to make essentially the same film so we get more visual effects, more stunts, more monster, more humor, more characters, more everything. Sadly, more effects and stunts can ruin the organic nature that made the first film great with its less is more approach. More characters naturally mean someone is going to be unlikeable and Lane fully fills that quota.The humor that is largely brought to us by Peter is unnecessary as well.

Now, all of that said, none of it really ruins the film. This is where I'm having a hard time fully describing my feelings, or hell, even figuring out my feelings, on THE BLAIR WITCH. The movie comes together just fine and Wingard's direction is pretty damn good. Barrett's screenplay is pretty good too aside from a few simply idiotic decisions made by characters. Lane is an unlikeable character by design so even that works to a point. There's some bizarre events during the film's finale that are at the very least interesting and definitely don't feel out of place. It's all a really solid production aside from it's cliches and genre trappings. The cast is quite good from top to bottom and the witch house is downright creepy. THE BLAIR WITCH is not a bad horror film, pandering a bit to much current audiences, yes, but it's an entertaining viewing experience that is far and away the best sequel to The Blair Witch Project.

But that doesn't mean I love it. Or even really like it. But I definitely don't hate it. To go back to the Evil Dead 2 analogy, where ED2 succeeded was being a bigger production that was different enough while being completely faithful to the original. Where THE BLAIR WITCH fails at being something great is that it's a much bigger production that is far too similar to the original that simply can't capture the intangible qualities that made the original film such a classic. I'm not sure how big of a role Lionsgate played in the production but this feels like a studio horror film that is set up for expanding the franchise when this film inevitably turns out to be a financial success. And that dear reader might sum up my feelings the best - THE BLAIR WITCH is a bigger studio version of the original film designed to set up the franchise that they couldn't 16 years ago. THE BLAIR WITCH has it's faults and isn't a classic by any means but it's a decent, if all too typical horror film.

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