Blair Witch (2016)
You all know the shivering story I’m sure, of how back in the shadowing eaves of the 20th century a couple of inventive film students improvised one of the most terrifying films of modern times? The original Blair Witch Project was quite the phenomenon of its time, an early beneficiary of viral market on the nascent net, and a clever fiction shrouding back-story that convinced the more ghoulish gullible that the footage was genuine. I liked the 1999 original a great deal, I found it genuinely unsettling with a killer final moment, all qualities which the detested Book Of Shadows sequel neglected to its forgettable reputation. Unlike contemporary post-modern and J-horror tropes of that period the picture had a genuine ferocity, a freshness which traded on elemental fears buried deep in our primitive brains, the numbing notion of being stalked and chased in the wilderness with no savior coming, of the unknown spectral lurking on the fringes of our rational civilization. Given it’s ratio of budget to profit it is no surprise that another crew would have a crack on establishing a new franchise, this long gestating sequel carefully shrouded in secrecy, engineered with a canny eye for modern marketing and internet appreciation by the cult movie team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. Operating under the working title The Woods the real horror was revealed at the San Diego Comic-Con premiere a few months ago, and now the film has finally been unleashed to shriek through the multiplexes, alas for me this is several generations away from their clever genetic genre The Guest and much more in line with You’re Next, a project grasping for purchase far beyond its instinctive reach, with a fatal void of genuine terror or original thought.
Like its nefarious forebear the films opens with a grim title screen incantation – that the footage we are about to be exposed to was recovered from the Burksville woods, in the year 2014. Yes we’re back in shaky-cam found footage territory, the for some nauseous technique which abandons any primitive props such as a camera mounts or spirit levels, branded with a 21st century update – all the principals are equipped with ear mounted GoPros, lightweight digital palmcorders, multi-gadget GPS synchronization. In a further nod to modern filming techniques the inquisitive group have even brought along a camera-drone contraption in order to pierce the forest canopy, a clever plan to potentially locate the ruined dwelling that was the site of the doomed sortie’s last frantic frames of rushes. A contemporary connection is sparked through James (James Allen McCune) who is still haunted by the disappearance of his older sister Heather some fifteen years ago, and he seeks closure by travelling to the Burksville woods in order to retrace her final steps. Accompanying him is media student Lisa (Callie Hernandez) who naturally wants to make her own film of the experience, marshaling friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) in order to stump up the slaughter shrieking numbers. After a brief contextual sequence the team stop briefly to recruit a couple of locals who are fascinated with the legend, enlisting the environmental and historical knowledge of the slightly sinister Lane (Wes Robinson) and his friend Talia (Valorie Curry) before they hesitantly hunch into the foreboding wilderness….
Your patience with Blair Witch will be largely dependent on your capacity to endure long, sustained shaky-cam footage of characters rushing through murky environments, all the while screaming and yelling for the preservation of their precious immortal souls. After a perfunctory context setting scene you have to admire Wingard for getting straight down to business in the increasingly eerie woods for the films remaining 75 minutes, but critically unfortunately any genuine chills are largely absent from this increasingly redundant sequel. Like may sequels it is a greatest hits revamp of the originals increasing desperation – the futile return to base camp after hours of hiking, the ghostly appearance of Wicca inspired charms and dreamcatchers, but there is almost nothing new here that is comprehensively and chillingly inducted. Some new concepts are inflicted – a sliver of body horror after a characters flesh wound starts to manifest necrotic qualities, sanity shredding time disruption and disorders seem to be pushing into our dimension through the porous location of the Burksville woods, a wider excavation of the Blair Witch mythos and origins are muttered between the increasing hysteria – but these strands are left fatally unmolested, as both director and screenwriter seem uncertain of where these strands will conclude and how they could match the fate of their characters. Instead once the crew find themselves adrift in the dark, dark woods the film is punctuated with a handful of cattle-prod scares, the usual ‘oh don’t sneak up on me’ cliches which are thoroughly unnecessary, while the film sorely lacks that lurking, coiling dread that the original mustered as the light began to fade and the night shadows started flickering, bringing with them another long and fearful period of cowering in your tents while something prowled around outside…..
After an interminable period of screeching, fumbling and overall stumbling our surviving prey arrives at the same decrepit domicile, deep in the delirious woods. Alas the enthusiasm has ebbed to such levels at this point that the prospect of some final glimpsed vision of the titular crone had long lost its lusture, and if I’m honest I was just patiently awaiting the pandemonium to end. Throughout the entirety of Blair Witch there was one singular moment which raised the hackles but it is merely an amplification of a story beat from the original film, a brief detour into building tension and apprehension before the plot diverted back to the same visual and cluttered incomprehension. There has been no empathy built as to the fate of these hapless souls, and its difficult to understand where or why characters are frantically careering through certain paths, whilst some of the young cast meet their fate in the most undramatic and perfunctory methods possible – this my learned friends is not how you make a horror movie linger and lurk in the memory. It’s a shame, a real missed opportunity with this setting the potential was there to really craft a 21st century update to a milestone genre film if they only had some supernatural inspiration and an eerie execution. For now the fate of the 2016 horror genre rests on a few possible shrieks at the LFF and Don’t Breathe which I’m going to see tomorrow, but as the cabal currently chants the only withered and accursed crone worth your time mounted her broomstick some two hundred and fifty years ago…..