Halloween Horror: Blair Witch (2016)

Much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed, orJurassic World, Blair Witch acts simultaneously as a long-awaited follow-up and as a soft reboot of a popular franchise. However, unlike these other films, last year’s Blair Witch was neither a financial nor critical success. Bemoaned as an assaultive demonstration of the weaknesses inherent to the found-footage subgenre, Blair Witch was savaged by critics, underperformed during its opening weekend, and promptly disappeared into the abyss where middling horror films go to die. Sadly, this ignominious fate means that most people won’t give Blair Witch a fair shake or come to realize this is a brutally-effective horror film. Although lacking the subtlety of its predecessor that spawned the found-footage subgenre, Blair Witch nevertheless demonstrates the assaultive, unrelenting potential of this approach, where no edit or corner of the frame allows safety from the horrors attacking its characters, and subsequently, the viewer.

Blair Witch opens with James Donohue (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of The Blair Witch Projects Heather, discovering footage he believes shows his sister after she disappeared in the woods outside Burkettsville in 1994. Spurred by this footage, James decides to head into the woods to see if he can suss out more about Heather’s disappearance. He brings with him his documentarian friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), and his buddies, Peter (Brandon Scott), and Ashley (Corbin Reid). The crew also pairs up with two locals, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valerie Curry), who found the tape containing the footage of Heather and want to come along to satisfy their own obsessions with the Blair Witch mythology.

The early scenes of Blair Witch are without-a-doubt the weakest, as the characters awkwardly justify why they’re filming (Lisa is making a documentary about people finding closure) and schlep in front of the camera like the sorts of average bums that make viewers hate found-footage films. The character of Peter is particularly annoying, alternating between being mockingly glib about the urban legends regarding the Blair Witch and hyperactively aggressive to Lane and Talia, repeatedly blocking their camera like he’s a celebrity escaping a hotel or getting up in their face like their presence is a personal affront. (There’s also no doubt from early on that he’ll be the first to go, which is unfortunate as Peter is black and his fate plays into the racist stereotypes of the genre.) These early moments lack the quiet, frog-in-boiling-water nature of The Blair Witch Project and share more with boring duds like Area 51.

But once the characters make camp in the woods, around 20 minutes into the film, things quickly escalate to a paranoid pitch and never let up. Soon enough, they find themselves surrounded by the stick figures made famous in the first film and decide the woods are too creepy for them after all. Unfortunately for them, they can’t find their cars, their path circles back to their camp site, and, most chillingly, once the sun goes down, it never comes back up.

Once Blair Witch reaches the point of eternal night, Adam Wingard and his fellow filmmakers unleash a barrage of scares, each one calculated to affect the viewer in different ways, and each one building in intensity and ingenuity from the last. First we have stick figures and stone piles (echoes of the first film) followed by clever time paradoxes (a moment where a disheveled Lane and Talia reappear from the woods claiming it’s been five days since they last saw James and company is chilling in its understated dread) and then hell is truly unleashed as tents go flying across the campsite, trees crumble to the ground and a (mostly) unseen figure begins chasing the characters through the woods, dispatching them in hellish ways.

This approach to horror is all about escalation and progression. Early quiet leads to thunderous, relentless horror in later moments, where every part of the frame holds the potential for fast-paced, energetic scares. As well, the references are broad, displaying Wingard’s knowledge of contemporary horror cinema. While the early scares resemble the quiet dread of the first film, the subsequent scares borrow as much from other good found-footage horror films like The Last Exorcism and REC.

It’s as if BlairWitch is trying to get the final word on the method of found-footage horror, borrowing from every successful entry in the subgenre. A webcam attached to a tree in the campsite allows Wingard to play with Paranormal Activity-style static suspense, where we search the frame for peculiarities, while moments late in the film in a dilapidated house resemble the frantic panic of REC, which also has the characters search for a way out with no pause in momentum. We even get moments in a storm drain, which resemble the claustrophobia of As Above, So Below.

There is ambition here and a wide-ranging approach to scares. Wingard isn’t satisfied to repeat a tactic, instead using multiple methods to attack the characters, and the viewer, over the course of the film. Even if I disagree with individual decisions (for instance, I cannot abide the decision to show the witch, even for a split second), I applaud the go-for-broke approach. As well, the visual clarity and eye for composition cannot be overlooked. Aside from REC, which has the most meticulous cinematography of any found-footage film, and Paranormal Activity, which is unparalleled in the elegance of its frame, Blair Witch has the best compositions to be found in the subgenre.

Blair Witch cannot replicate the magic of the original film. The verisimilitude is nowhere as convincing as in the original, where the inexplicable origins of the film and the low-fi nature of the footage made it the first (and last) found-footage film to seem like it actually could have been found. Nor do Blair Witch’s images linger in the subconscious quite like the grainy handycam of the original. But in terms of sheer terror, Blair Witch is hard to top. Few films have scared me as relentlessly in recent years and that has to count for something.

7 out of 10

Blair Witch (2016, USA)

Directed by Adam Wingard; written by Simon Barrett; starring James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Valerie Curry, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson.