By Hanajun Chung
Doing a sequel/reboot of the 1999 lightning in a bottle "The Blair Witch Project" for 2016 feels especially odd. More than half a decade has passed since the peak of found-footage horror films (e.g. "Cloverfield," "R.E.C.," and the mega-successful "Paranormal Activity" series)—a genre that quickly tired as fast as horror reboots did in the late aughts. Despite all of that, one couldn't have asked better than film-making duo Simon Barrett (writer) and Adam Wingard (director) to take on this seemingly fruitless task. The pair understands the found-footage format, horror and playing with genre conventions—even able to capture some of the pre-release magic that propelled the original to success.
"Blair Witch" delivers the scares, aggressively so, while occasionally making interesting decisions in storytelling. But every step forward is also two steps back in logic, resulting in an overall tame experience.
Taking place almost two decades after the original, James (James Allen McCune) finds a video clip online that might reveal what happened to his vanished older sister Heather—the protagonist from the first film. Strapped with modern technology and accompanied by guides, his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) films their return to the woods for her college documentary class.
Remakes shouldn't always necessarily have to be like the original film. On top of squandering any storytelling potential regarding all the newer, modern elements added for today's audience, what's disappointing is that "Blair Witch" follows the original structurally. Each act should build toward the chaotic finale, but it drags on for the sake of ineffective character work.
The casting could've been a bit better. Aside from Callie Hernandez, the rest of the cast is average. The male actors can get especially grating. They're unable to gauge the scene properly and simply go for basic emotions, adding zero nuance or depth to the performance. Even though horror films excuse acting (which some consider a staple), this type of film requires an extra layer of performance to sell the grounded nature of a found-footage format. It also doesn't help that the characters themselves are dumb and mostly unlikable.
The sound design in "Blair Witch" is the film's double-edge sword. When you have differing video types and cameras being edited together, it helps that the constant element in this film—which in this case would be audio—provide some kind of safety and continuity for the audience. It's a little too clean to be believable, but it works. It's only when the sound bombards the audience with every single wasted jump scare that things feel repetitive.
When considering the filmmakers behind this film, it's hard not to feel upset. Their past films such as "You're Next" and "The Guest" are fun and inventive, but more importantly, convey their identities and personalities as artists. Bottom line: they're damn good filmmakers who deserved a shot at a wide-release. "Blair Witch" contains shades of their cleverness sprinkled throughout, but mostly comes off incredibly bland and generic. It's a standard found-footage film, not a Wingard/Barret one.
There's some clever stuff in there that might interest fans. The filmmakers take one of the original's biggest critiques (the lack of actual threat), and fill out the mythology behind the Blair Witch for audiences. In addition, apparently the witch (yes, an actual witch) has a set of powers or abilities that are interesting, but the overall execution of it all feels tacked on.
When the first trailer for this film came out, it was released with a different title: "The Woods." It was only during last-year's Comic-Con premiere that a lucky several hundred were tricked into thinking they were watching a new horror film called "The Woods," only to learn that they were watching THE new "Blair Witch" film the moment the onscreen characters blurt out the words. Audiences left that screening, only to find all the posters for "The Woods" were now renamed "Blair Witch." For those lucky individuals, they probably had an incredibly satisfying and memorable experience from that screening.
For everyone else, it's standard.