Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
The horror genre and I have always had something of a love/hate relationship. I’ve never been enamoured by so-called slasher movies or anything that involves gratuitous gore, but I must admit that I do enjoy a good psychological scare-fest and the most unsettling film of this sort that I’ve ever seen is undoubtedly The Blair Witch Project.
Its genius lies in the simplicity of its set-up. Three people head out into the woods to investigate an old urban legend and are plagued by odd occurrences and strange noises in the night before finding a mysterious house that may or not harbour an evil entity. In fact, it never even offers up any evidence that the protagonists were ever actually at the mercy of a malevolent metaphysical force. Yet, it still succeeded in being incredibly disconcerting.
The reason for this was because the situation was extremely relatable. Everyone’s minds play tricks on them from time to time, particularly in the dark, and by leaving it ambiguous as to whether anything paranormal was really going on, The Blair Witch Project managed to be both bloodcurdling and believable. It’s a story that exploits the fear of the unknown and certainly this is something with which it’s easier to identify than being chased through the trees by a wrathful witch.
Considering it’s still so ingrained in the public consciousness, I’m obviously one of many on whom the movie made a major impact. It’s unsurprising then that the internet exploded in July when it was announced that a direct sequel was just around the corner. Now the much-discussed Adam Wingard-directed endeavour has finally descended upon theatres and unfortunately it’s the absolute antithesis of its superb predecessor.
Taking place in 2014, Blair Witch revolves around the younger brother of original star Heather Donahue as he and his friends embark on an ill-advised trek into the outback of Burkittsville in the hopes of uncovering the truth behind his sister’s unexplained disappearance. From here, the film unfolds in almost exactly the same way as what came before it, only without exhibiting even the remotest trace of tension or terror.
I’ve criticised sequels in the past for repeating the formula of their forbears, but the problem here isn’t even that Blair Witch rehashes the original so much as it that its execution is so astonishingly ineffective. For starters, the writers seem to be of the belief that inserting an abundance of jump “scares” is the best way to make a movie feel frightening. I put the word “scares” in inverted commas because not a single genuine fright results from any of these moments. Not only can you see most of them coming, almost all of them are caused by something superficial.
The writers should have worried less about attempting to terrify the audience by having things abruptly appear on screen and more about crafting an accomplished story. Although in this regard, Blair Witch was stuck in kind of a catch-22 situation. It’s usually expected that a sequel will expand the mythology and/or add clarity to anything left unresolved by its predecessor. Blair Witch does do both of these things to some extent, but that is perhaps its greatest downfall from a narrative perspective.
As outlined above, the first film was kept credible by taking advantage of the fear of the unknown and leaving it up to the viewer to decide what exactly was going on. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious as to whether the witch was real, but I recognise that the true terror of the tale arose from its equivocation. While there’s bound to be debate about whether it definitively explains everything, Blair Witch leaves little room for wonder when it comes to the cause of the characters’ calamity and ends up seeming all too similar to any number of other formulaic found footage films as a consequence.
It may seem strange to chastise the story for offering insight into the conundrum upon which it’s constructed, but it just goes to show that it was the questions that kept its precursor compelling. The answers add nothing to the original movie. All they do is provide proof that it should have been left to stand alone. As if 2000’s abysmal Book of Shadows didn’t already demonstrate that!
Another issue that Blair Witch faces is that it looks far too clean-cut. The crude quality of the first film greatly enhanced its authenticity and while it is of course feasible that even the most rudimentary recording devices of today could create HD videos, ironically enough, the movie’s accurate representation of modern amateur movie-making techniques significantly compromises its realism.
And on the topic of authenticity, the protagonists are considerably less believable as real people than their 1999 counterparts. There was a strong sense of verisimilitude surrounding the behaviour of Heather, Josh and Mike that made it easy to accept them as three genuine individuals trapped in chilling circumstances. Blair Witch’s central ensemble, on the other hand, are a horde of horror archetypes whose names no-one is likely to remember after the credits roll.
There’s Heather’s brother, whose only defining trait is his contrived familial connection; his film student friend who’s just along for the ride; the obnoxious sceptic and his injured girlfriend; the over-zealous local who knows less than he lets on; and Emma Hill from The Following sporting a new hairstyle. Other than that, there’s not much to say about any of the main characters. They’re all utterly forgettable and completely unlikable. The only vague reason we’re given to root for any of them is that they’re led by Heather’s brother and we should care about his quest because we were invested in his sister in the first film.
Were this movie not marketed under the Blair Witch banner, I have no doubt that it would have been overlooked entirely. It extends nothing in the way of originality, shock or suspense. At best, it’s just a bland found footage film from which you might get a little value if you were to stumble across it on TV and glimpse at the screen every so often as you’re idly surfing on your laptop or re-organising your town in Tapped Out. At worst, it ruins the enigma of its engrossing antecedent and robs you of twelve euro that could have been spent on a couple of pints or a pizza. Either way, your time would be better served just staying at home and re-watching The Blair Witch Project instead.
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