There’s something ironic about having your phone confiscated when going in to see a found footage movie, as I did.
Initially marketed as an original project, The Woods – complete with misleading trailer footage of a very non-Maryland forest – Adam Wingard’s arboreal horror was unexpectedly revealed as a sequel to the genre-launching Blair Witch Project, which famously grossed almost a quarter of a billion off a budget of $60,000 all the way back in 1999.
Titled simply Blair Witch, this new film – the third in the series after 2000’s Razzie-nominated, quickly forgotten Book of Shadows – follows another group of filmmakers who ill-advisedly head into the fictional Black Hills to investigate the disappearance of the original film crew. James (James Allen McCune) is hoping to find some proof of what happened to his sister Heather; Talia (Valia Curry) wants to capture it on camera; James’ best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) are just along for the ride. What happens to them out in the woods is remarkably similar to what befell their predecessors.
As such, Blair Witch can’t help but feel like a pure-and-simple re-tread; covering almost literally the same ground seventeen years later. Wingard is a hugely talented director – his film The Guest was an unexpected highlight of 2014 – and the film is undoubtedly a labour of love for him and screenwriter Simon Barrett, who reportedly worked on the project for two years before its real origins were revealed. Nevertheless, both of them are limited by the formula and the format.
While advances in technology offer a few new toys for shooting – ear-mounted cameras, a drone – Blair Witch quickly falls into a familiar rhythm; though Wingard is innovatively able to work in a match cut here and there, which, while feeling totally organic, are striking in their formalism. Ultimately, though, the film, as it must strips all this way. Drones crash, GPS malfunctions, totems appear, and tents are sucked into the sky, and our characters are left alone and afraid in the dark to be picked off; their torches starkly illuminating the undergrowth as branches crack loudly nearby and animals howl.
Cinematographer Robby Baumgartner introduces an array of in-camera glitches when things get frenetic, which combined with Louis Cioffi’s use of sudden, jarring cuts, keeps you on guard for the editing equivalent of a jump scare. Still, after taking the time to once again lay out the mythology of the titular creature, it’s disappointing that the film descends instead into a hysteria of whip pans and screaming; incoherent with terror and sadly unsatisfying for it. For much of this extended sequence – essentially the film’s final act – you might well not realize, watching it on your laptop screen, if it had been recorded on someone’s phone. For much the same reasons, an apparent twist involving footage seemingly recycled from The Blair Witch Project falls flat through sheer contrivance.
Blair Witch is incredibly well-conceived, effectively scary for much of its run-time, and remarkably loyal to the work of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Nevertheless, in an age where the found footage genre is more effectively deconstructed than employed – Found Footage 3D recently won the jury award at the inaugural Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Fest – you just hope there might be something more to it this time around.
In a franchise whose most resonant image might be of people facing corners, the film just has nothing new to say.