In January 1896, Auguste and Louis Lumière presented their fifty second long Train Pulling into a Station, and if urban legend is to be believed the monochrome illusion it created was so convincing that people tried to escape the auditorium, afraid of being crushed by the train which was apparently about to burst out of the screen. It will never be known whether this is true or if this effect had been planned by the brothers Lumière but if so it would be the first time in the brief history of the cinema when a recorded picture overwhelmed the audience’s own perception of reality.
It is this conceit which, over a hundred years later, lies behind the ongoing subgenre of horror known as “found footage,” where the goal is to fool the viewer’s natural instinct of incredulity and convince them that the presented story is true. The first truly successful movie of this kind was The Blair Witch Project, which remains one of the most financially successful independent movie of all time. What followed were two decades of failed attempts to repeat that success across many studios and directors, with Lionsgate now returning to the wellspring with Blair Witch, the sequel to that original film, released after seven years in development.
James Donahue (The Walking Dead‘s James Allen McCune), whose elder sister Heather disappeared in unknown circumstances in the woods around Burkittsville over twenty years ago, hopes that she is still alive. When he watches a recording which has been discovered in the Black Hill forest and which he believes shows his missing sister, James decides to search for Heather in the company of his friends Peter (Grey’s Anatomy‘s Brandon Scott), Ashley (How to Get Away with Murder‘s Corbin Reid) and Lisa (From Dusk Till Dawn‘s Callie Hermandez) who want to record their journey as a student project, mirroring the circumstances of the expedition on which Heather was lost.
After arriving to Burkittsville the group meets with the local couple who found the recording, Talia (The Following’s Valorie Curry) and Lane (Roadies’ Wes Robinson) and ventures into the woods just to get lost and from there, with no surprises, no plot twists and no character development other than escalating demonstrations of egregiously dangerous naiveté, this horror film of six people walking through the woods unfolds exactly as would be expected.
Where The Blair Witch Project once created a template, a path through the trees too often followed without hint of imagination or deviation, so Blair Witch is undeniably a remake and not a sequel as it has been optimistically described by the creators. A typical representation of the found footage genre which presents all elements and flaws of such, we have here the obligatory presentation of the filming equipment, people walking through the forest at night, people running through the forest at night, people arguing in the forest at night, and people shouting each other’s names while running through the forest at night.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett who previously collaborated on both V/H/S and V/H/S 2 do not make any attempts to expand the story presented in 1999 or even surprise with new occurrences to at least refresh the overly familiar plot. By simply ticking off the boxes and deploying all the clichés of modern horror without inspiration or invention as though filmmaking is nothing more than a mathematical equation, transplanting The Blair Witch Project into the twenty first century has taken one of the defining films of the genre and surgically removed all the fear and relevance.
If there is one thing to be grateful for, it is Wingard’s demonstration that found footage truly belongs in the last century, and despite having worked extensively in the genre he lacks the imagination and the will to challenge the rules of found footage, only stretching them as was done in the Paranormal Activity series where each instalment offered some new approach to presentation from the use of Xbox 360 Kinect or the 3D “ghost camera.”
With multiple headset cameras opening the perspectives and the frequent technical shortcomings of found footage, undeniably Blair Witch looks and sounds very good, fulfilling the expectations of modern cinema and changing it into a well-executed spectacle, though it could be argued this expertise is contrary to the necessarily rough edged ethic of the genre, but crucially it is the narrative which Wingard needs to update and here he never crosses the lines of the colouring book given to him by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick.
What made The Blair Witch Project so effective was that it was rooted in the land around Burkittsville, the mundane honesty of the people who walked that soil and lived their quiet lives under the shadow of those trees, while Wingard is over the top, crying into the camera when all he can offer are tired and obvious clichés which merit none of the attention he craves.
From open wounds oozing pus, flying tents and a digital witch lurking in the darkness, the once terrifying titular witch Elly Kedward has been reduced to whoring herself at a Hallowe’en funhouse sideshow. Better when using shadow, lights, and how the mysterious space of the abandoned house in the forest is presented, the film improving during these final moments but Wingard unable to redeem the predictable and ultimately boring journey the viewers endured to arrive there.