On paper, Blair Witch looks promising. The 2016 horror film is directed by Adam Wingard and features a screenplay by Simon Barrett. It’s a direct sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the picture that can be blamed and/or thanked for popularizing the whole “found footage” brand of horror. And it all but ignores Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.
Unfortunately, what looks good on paper falls apart in practice and Blair Witch is kind of a mess. The found footage style does more harm than good, with an inherent lack of refinement generating a pounding, roaring cacophony of sound and fury. Things are always moving, snapping, cracking. Someone’s always shouting, running, stumbling.
The movie picks up with James Donahue (James Allen McCune), brother of the missing Heather Donahue from The Blair Witch Project, believing his sister is alive. He heads out to the woods near Burkittsville with camera equipment and some friends. Along the way, a couple locals join the crew.
One of the locals (Wes Robinson) brings up the Blair Witch as being responsible for the disappearance of James’ sister. Things go bump in the night. The group discovers they’ve been going in circles. Ashley (Corbin Reid) has a mysterious wound. Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and James find a familiar cabin. And so on.
Like the Paranormal Activity movies, the Blair Witch movies seem to be mounted in rather dense material. Websites proclaim a depth of mythology. How much this context matters in assessing the films is up for debate, but it is hard to find much to hold on to when everything of note twirls by in a GoPro instant.
The caveat for The Blair Witch Project was that the events unfolding on screen were real. The footage of Heather Donahue and her friends had been “found.” The camerawork was tottering and the dialogue was makeshift. It had a grimy, tattered feel and parsing the footage for meaning or for a figure in the blurred darkness was part of the fun.
In Blair Witch, everyone knows the gag has no meaning. Audiences won’t even pretend to be fooled. What remains is found footage as artistic intent, a method of delivering point of view rather than storytelling alternatives.
Wingard’s use of first-person perspective is loaded with what comes with the territory. There are copious jump scares. Much of what passes for fear is feedback. Audiences will naturally jump when something bounces out of nowhere and shrieks. That’s not terror or tension. It’s a reflex.
Beyond the reflexology instituted by being as helpless as the protagonists, audiences of Blair Witch are treated to a concerto of noise. This is one of the loudest of the found footage horrors so far. Things crack and thump with such ferocity that one wonders if there are dinosaurs in the deep, dark woods. One character stumbles and her leg snaps like a tree branch. Again and again.
It’s hard to argue that the characters matter or that the storyline resounds. Most of Blair Witch feels like an exercise in motion and perspective. Some scenes effectively communicate horror, but they seem like blips. And the whole construct is largely left to the mystery and mythologizing of web theorists looking for meaning in transitory distortions.