"Blair Witch" Resurrection Lacks Scares, Imagination

The final minutes of Adam Wingard’s “Blair Witch” meaningfully expound 1999’s bombshell blockbuster “The Blair Witch Project,” finally delivering some of the answers that 2000’s terrible, unintelligible “Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” passed over. It’s in these waning moments that Wingard and writer Simon Barrett cleverly hearken back to the summer of 1999, when the alleged disappearance of three fledgling documentarians in Maryland’s Black Hills Forest rocked the pop culture. As ingenious as the original film’s ambiguity was, moviegoers are only human. Many still long to know what became of Heather and Josh and Mike. And “Blair Witch” 2016 wisely obliges.

Except, it takes 80 minutes to get there. And those 80 minutes are an unremitting, unscary trudge that does little to separate itself from the found footage herd.

With the series’ aura of non-fiction long gone (the real Heather Donahue has been very much alive for the past seventeen years), Barrett simply multiplies the original character count by two, joining six twenty-somethings in a belated search for the fictional Heather. James (James Allen McCune) is her baby brother, still haunted by her disappearance and downright spooked when he sees a YouTube video that might feature his sister – or her ghost. With pals Peter (Brandon Scott), Ashley (Corbin Reid), and Lisa (Callie Hernandez) in tow, James links up with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), a couple of oddball Burtkittsville locals and Blair Witch enthusiasts. The sextet almost immediately heads off into the woods, armed to the teeth with… cameras. Brand new people, same old mistakes.

What follows is an utterly ordinary found footage film straightjacketed by a prestigious but dusty property. For long stretches of the film, Wingard and Barrett seem landlocked between homage and imitation, unsure whether to run towards or away from the original film. (They definitely run away from the psychedelic self-awareness of “Blair Witch 2,” which actually turns out to be a mistake. A little introspection might have gone a long way here.) Like Gus Van Sant’s ill-fated “Psycho” remake, the result is vaguely watchable with a steady waft of pointlessness. Up until its final scenes, the film adds so little to the Blair Witch mythos that it might as well have remained “The Woods” – the movie’s working title, meant to long conceal that the project was in fact a Blair Witch sequel.

It comes as no surprise that the characters aren’t half as effective as Heather and company were. They couldn’t be. There’s no way to recreate the rough-and-tumble filming style of the original within the studio system. Wingard and Barrett couldn’t rely on harsh living conditions or mind games to elicit panicked performances from their actors. The upshot is a batch of very ordinary horror movie characters performed very ordinarily, with only a couple rising above body count fodder. And the most likable among them is dispatched first, making for a noticeably uncharismatic final reel.

Worst of all, the scares are not very scary. Wingard has excelled at cool horror (“You’re Next” and “The Guest” are exemplars of the genre), but scary horror is another game entirely. And “Blair Witch” suggests he’s not very good at it. Apart from the typical assault of jump scares, there are only a few genuinely intense moments, all arriving in those final minutes. And their intensity is more a result of years of Blair Witch curiosity coming to a head than remarkable writing or staging.

A tent full of undercooked story elements (camera drones, mysterious foot infections) end up apt analogs for the project as a whole. There are still wildly creative found footage horror films to be made (see last year’s wonderfully unsettling “Creep”), but “Blair Witch” isn’t one, determined to tread primly in the footsteps of a 17-year-old phenomenon. It’s a defeat made all the more defeating by its titanically talented creative team.

Perhaps time will reveal the movie as the sequel we didn’t (and still don’t) know we wanted. The finale alone is nearly worth the price of admission, begging to be inhabited by characters with the slightest hint of personality. But first impressions are often everything in horror, and “Blair Witch” flubs its first viewing so badly that few are likely to ever give it that second chance. The series (read: the original film) has always been a miracle of do-it-yourself gumption – the happiest of once-in-a-lifetime accidents. Maybe it’s best to know, definitively, that it’ll stay that way.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: September 16, 2016
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriter: Simon Barrett
Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Valorie Curry, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson
MPAA Rating: R (for language, terror and some disturbing images)