‘Blair Witch’ Takes a Familiar Trail to a Dead End

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Rating: 2.0/5.0

CHICAGO – The forest is an elusive environment that can hold hope for one person or isolation for another. You can enter the forest for some Thoreauvian wisdom, but end up being engulfed by its overwhelming monotony. As we revisit the world of “Blair Witch”, we are reminded that the found footage genre has come a long way from its humble origins, but perhaps some footage is better off not “found.”

Adam Wingard is no novice when it comes to creating tense atmospheres in horror/thriller films. With films like “You’re Next” and “The Guest”, Wingard has already proven his mastery over several key aesthetics necessary to the horror genre. In “Blair Witch”, he repeats all of them while also adding some of the more cheapening effects to recreate the once novel experience that was “The Blair Witch Project” and gives it the Hollywood treatment.

“Blair Witch” is one affable dog with a speech impediment away from a full-blown cartoon caper. The scares are predictable and formulaic, relying on jump cuts and sudden sound distortions to startle you. It continues wearing you down with this technique, creating tougher and tougher calluses until you feel nothing by the time the film actually reaches its climax. Every time the camera turns, you know somebody is going to “suddenly” appear. Every time the digital footage fades for the next scene, your body cringes at the aggressively loud noise that you know will start the next scene. Aside from being completely ineffective, these techniques quickly become infuriating, setting the frustrated tone you will have for the rest of the film.

Lisa (Callie Hernandez) Starts Her Journey in ‘Blair Witch’
Photo credit: Lionsgate

The shots are so perfectly framed and the footage looks so pristine that you begin to wonder if this story should even be told in the found footage format. “Blair Witch” picks up the gimmick under the guise of filming a documentary (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?), but eventually completely drops the pretense. That’s when you start feeling the presence of the Wingard-led film crew rather than the self-shooting youths that the original pioneered. The film would have probably been much more successful as a third-person narrative rather than a shifting first-person farce.

The found footage genre has had a storied history of shaky, low visibility camerawork, but for good cause. Aside from relying on the fear of darkness or establishing a sense of claustrophobia, the genre mostly succeeds by creating fear out of uncertainty. There is something lurking in the shadows and even though we see evidence of it, it is rarely ever shown full on. Once you can quantify your fear, it has much less of a hold over you. “The Blair Witch Project” created fear by allowing us to experience what the characters went through, showing us their dark sides while never revealing the true evil forces at work. We never find out if they are man-made or supernatural, and we never need to, but “Blair Witch” takes a much more direct approach.

Halfway through the film, they establish that there is a supernatural, ,verging on extraterrestrial, element to the forest. After some spacetime manipulation and an unfortunate accident regarding a broken stick figure, we realize just what kind of tone this film wants to add to the canon. For the most part, it works, especially since it expands the Blair Witch mythos in an exciting, but predictable way. The problem with the new additions to the found footage genre is that they feel the need to define their villains, fearing the opacity that once made the genre so effective. What does that mean? Yes, we do get to see exactly who the Blair Witch in all of her anticlimactic creature design glory.

Part of the team for Wingard’s past projects include his writer Simon Barrett. One of the best parts of a Wingard/Barrett collaboration in the development of characters. Barrett creates at least one character that it establishes so well that they could lead the entire film if/once all the other characters have gone. Unfortunately, the characters in “Blair Witch” feel disposable. Using our previous knowledge about the franchise, we knew they would be. That doesn’t mean that a little character development wouldn’t have helped us to create attachments to them before their misfortunes.

Lisa Goes Through a Transition in ‘Blair Witch’
Photo credit: Lionsgate

The entire effectiveness of “The Blair Witch Project” relies on the seemingly mundane character development during the first act of the film. Getting to know these characters in a completely organic way and understanding their personalities are part of what infused the original with an intoxicating sense of risk and urgency. We cared about those characters, even if we ultimately knew their fates. Our attachment to them is what kept us invested and interested in the original film, but “Blair Witch” haphazardly floods the narrative with characters in hopes that at least one will stick. None of them do.

When put in a tough situation, like deciding whether you want to sit through “Blair Witch”, our human instincts for “fight” or “flight” take over. The consummate Wingard/Barrett fans will choose “fight”, hoping that their track record will be enough to elevate this franchise flick. As the characters discovered too late in this film, perhaps “flight” would have been the much smarter choice.

“Blair Witch” opened everywhere on September 16th. Featuring James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry. Screenplay by Simon Barrett. Directed by Adam Wingard. Rated “R”

Jon Espino, film and video game critic, HollywoodChicago.com

Film & Video Game Critic

© 2016 Jon Espino, HollywoodChicago.com

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