by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
Blair Witch was the best-kept secret in Hollywood this side of the script for Star Wars: The Force Awakens or the existence of 10 Cloverfield Land. Heck, it might even be a better one than those two pieces of major studio sleight of hand ended up proving to be, if only because, in the years since its 1999 debut, The Blair Witch Project spawned almost two decade's worth of imitators and gave birth to the found footage subgenre of horror. Its impact on the medium has reverberated to the point that for every The Visit, [REC] or Paranormal Activity, there are so many subpar, close to worthless variations on a similar theme, trying to keep track of them all is pretty much impossible.
So, with that in mind, it's no wonder Lionsgate and The Guest and You're Next impresarios, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, went out of their way to conceal the fact they were secretly making a sequel to one of the more important and influential horror films in recent memory. Not only could they never hope to capture the same sort of mystery that met the original (it was cannily marketed as being 'real' footage, not a fictional story of an investigative journey into the woods gone all sorts of wrong), but the fatigue concerning the genre itself is palpable to the point generating excitement for a new found footage effort is decidedly difficult.
Made under the working title of The Woods, Lionsgate even going so far as to start an entire marketing campaign with theatrical posters and expertly crafted trailers for the faux feature, Wingard and Barrett were able to make their film in something akin to total secrecy and, safe to say, it shows. While no one really needed a direct sequel to that 1999 classic (let's all just pretend 2000's Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 doesn't even exist, shall we?), even if there isn't much in the way of new ground for the innovative filmmakers to tread upon, that doesn't mean they don't give it their best effort all the same. The end result? Even if its feet are planted in overly familiar territory, Blair Witch is spectacularly unsettling, its final 30 minutes a crackerjack roller coaster ride of suspenseful thrills and chills that are well worth the price of admission all on their own.
After a video is released online showcasing the same house glimpsed in the recovered footage of his sister Heather and her two fellow film student friends in Maryland's supposedly haunted Black Hills Forest 20 years prior, college student James (James Allen McCune) begins to believe she might still be alive. His good friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), currently finishing up film school herself, signs up to join him as he journeys to this forest searching for this mysterious house, wanting to record his actions as a documentary thesis project. They are joined by James' best bud since childhood Peter (Brandon Scott) and his outgoing girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), all of them heading to the Black Hills for what they believe will be a quick, utterly harmless weekend camping trip.
Two more end up coming along on their trek, locals Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry). They're the ones who discovered the strange video that James found on the Internet, and as part of the price of showing him where they found the tape they want to tag along for the weekend. Both are keen to learn more about the legend of the Blair Witch who supposedly haunts the Black Woods Forest, certain there will be safety in numbers and aren't worrying anything strange will happen what with six of them going on this particular adventure.
They're mistaken, of course, but I can't help but think just about everyone who buys a ticket to see Blair Witch is likely going to know that going in. As such, the mystery is lessened a considerable amount, as anyone who has ever heard of the original The Blair Witch Project, let alone seen it, knows pretty much from the get-go what is going to happen. Additionally, unlike either of their past two successes, The Guest or You're Next, Wingard and Barrett don't make that giant attempt to flip things on their head in any sort of discernable way, aren't nearly as interested in using the audience's knowledge of the prior film, or the genre as a whole, against them.
All of which would lead one to think this new sojourn into the Black Hills Forest would be nothing short of a yawn-inducing waste of a time, an assumption that would be absolutely, unequivocally erroneous. Wingard and Barrett might not go in a direction that differs much from the 1999 film, but that doesn't mean they haven't thrown every ounce of their considerable talents behind the production. The pair know how to craft tension, and even in their early efforts, A Horrible Way to Die and the anthology favorite 'V/H/S' (they were the primary driving force that got the ball rolling for that series), it was apparent they knew how to make an audience squirm.
Which is exactly what they do here. They deliver up a cast of characters who are easy to identify with and relate to, so even when they start making some suspect, borderline stupid decisions, caring about what is going to happen to them, even when the outcome is not exactly in doubt, is far easier than it has any right to be. More, they utilize their collection of first-person cameras, including an aerial drone, rather brilliantly, all of it culminating in an escalating series of events that brings things hauntingly full circle. It's a kinetic nightmare of carnage and misdirection, things building to a time-bending reveal that would likely have had Rod Serling himself let loose an approving chuckle.
This isn't an actors' movie, and while all involved put forth solid efforts, especially a suitably terrified Curry, her reaction to what appears to be the title character's midnight handmade handiwork unnerving, I can't say any of them are so memorable I'm eager to see where they go from here. Still, they fill their parts with admirable fortitude, Hernandez, in particular, throwing herself into the film's signature climactic set piece with vigorous élan. She provoked feelings of paralyzing claustrophobia in me that were entirely unexpected, and considering I've not had all that much of a problem dealing with confined underground spaces this was somewhat surprising indeed.
I'm glad Wingard and Barrett made Blair Witch. Even if the movie doesn't do anything new, it shows that when talented filmmakers pool their talents and give a project their all even the most tired of subjects and stylistic choices can suddenly feel fresh, electric and alive once again. As out of the blue sequels are concerned, this is a pretty darn good one, and while the original will always be regarded as the terrifying belle of the found footage horror ball, this little party crasher is a suspense-filled darling well worth dancing until morning with.
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