The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a modern cinematic masterpiece. A ground breaking, absorbing and at times unbearably terrifying piece of filmmaking which redefined the horror genre and still resonates with audiences today. With Blair Witch, acclaimed director Adam Wingard and writing partner Simon Barrett have nobly attempted to reinterpret Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s seminal film for a modern audience. The results are mixed. Wingard and Barrett have certainly established strong horror credentials through their previous work on You’re Next, The Guest and V/H/S 1 & 2. They apply their skills with considerable aplomb on this film as well, but never come close to emulating the sheer genius of the original film. While much better than the much maligned sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), this instalment ultimately feels like another unnecessary reboot of a genre classic which should have been left alone.
The story centres around James (James Allen McCune), brother of Heather Donahue, the doomed protagonist from the first film who wandered into the woods with her comrades Josh and Mike but never returned. James reignites an interest in his sister’s disappearance when he discovers an online video which suggests that she may still be alive. With the assistance of his close friends Peter (Brandon Scott) Ashley (Corbin Reed), plus documentary filmmaker and potential love interest Lisa (Callie Hernandez), James decides to retrace his sister’s journey into the Black Hills Forest. Equipped with hi-tech ear cams, satellite drones, walkie talkies and two oddball Burkittsville locals (Wes Robinson & Valorie Curry), they set off hoping to find some answers. It’s a camping trip that they soon regret.
While pitched as a sequel rather than a remake, the narrative journey which follows is essentially a carbon copy of the first film. The group hike into the woods, get lost, hear strange sounds at night and are gradually tormented by a hostile presence until a gut wrenching climatic scene inside a creepy as hell abandoned house. The found footage approach is employed again here, albeit with flashier camerawork and more accomplished sound design. Wingard and Barrett definitely stamp their identity onto the film. While the threat in the original was ambiguous, here we are left with no doubt that the entity which is terrorising the group is supernatural in nature. Rather than the subtle slow burning dread that made the original so effective, Wingard opts for jump scares, injections of gore and overtly visceral horror film techniques to get the point across. For the most part, the film is genuinely frightening with the elongated climax delivering a particularly effective display of well executed, high impact terror. Time lapses, glimpses of strange figures in the woods, something sinister lurking inside the injured foot of a lead character and further expansion on the legend of Elly Kedward (aka. the Blair Witch), are all intriguing elements but never fleshed out. The effect is more curious than fully satisfying, leaving more questions than answers for the audience. It suggests that the filmmakers have set their sights on further instalments to explore their incoherent ideas in greater depth.
Blair Witch is too reliant on it’s superior source material for inspiration. The found footage approach isn’t as well executed, the performances are more contrived and lack the naturalistic brilliance of the original cast. It is entertaining and certainly underlines Wingard and Barrett as filmmakers of considerable talent, but it doesn’t leave an impression any where near as profound as the first film. In all fairness, few films do.