This has really been an amazing year for horror fans. I have been to the theater more times in 2016 than in previous years, and I have absolutely loved everything I have seen. And twice this year, fans were treated to “surprise” sequels that were kept almost completely under wraps until close to the release date. In March, it was the phenomenal 10 Cloverfield Lane, a more tangential sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield. Now, it is Blair Witch, which for the longest time was known simply as The Woods until the film’s premiere at Comic-Con.
This type of marketing is a gift to both filmmaker and fan. I’m the type of person who doesn’t need to have that much information before seeing a movie. I don’t watch trailers or clips. The writers, directors, or actors that are involved, or just the basic premise of a movie, is usually enough to sell me on it. Knowing that The Woods was another collaboration from two of my favorite filmmakers–director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, whom I have been following ever since A Horrible Way to Die–it was a given that I would be in the theater on opening night.
And, while I was hesitant when The Woods suddenly became Blair Witch (because I am not the biggest fan of the original The Blair Witch Project), I knew that these two guys were more than talented enough to hit the project out of the park. And do they ever, I am thrilled to report. Blair Witch is an intense, taut, and heart-pounding experience that offers up surprise after surprise as it reaches the nail-biting climax.
Blair Witch follows James, brother of Heather Donahue from the original film. Haunted by not knowing what happened to his sister all those years ago, James sets off to the Black Hills Forest to find her after seeing a YouTube video that makes him believe that Heather could possibly still be alive. Joining him on the excursion is Lisa, who is documenting his journey, and friends Peter and Ashley. A pair of locals guide them to a spot near where Heather disappeared, and the longer the group stays in the woods, the more they realize that the legend of the Blair Witch is frighteningly true.
The camera setup for the film should eliminate any misgivings people might have about watching yet another found footage movie set in the woods. There are multiple cameras at work here. The characters all wear earbud cameras the whole time, main documentarian Lisa has a small handheld, as does one of their local guides, Lane and there is even a drone camera to for overhead shots.
This allows for many different angles to be used in the scenes where the group is together and makes for much smoother editing. It looks more like a “real” movie, per se. And, when the group inevitably gets separated and the more frightening elements start coming into play, it takes away that nagging question that frequently plagues found footage, “why don’t they put the camera down?”, because the earbuds constantly record regardless.
Though Blair Witch feels more story-driven than character-driven, they are still nicely drawn characters. Everybody goes on this trip in support of their friend James because they know how important it is to him. Conflict is introduced with Talia and Lane, who uploaded the video that led them on the trip in the first place. They have more knowledge of the area and the legend, but their motives are a little shaky at first.
Barrett sprinkles in a few moments of levity that make us like the main cast even more–including a joke that should have been used in a horror film a long time ago. The sequel follows a similar vein as the original, but it takes all those ideas presented in the previous film and turns them up to 11. Sound design is crucial to most found footage flicks as there is no music, and this is the real star of Blair Witch.
It is something that really should be experienced in the theater. The first big scare is the incredibly loud cracking of a tree falling over. Then there are the sounds that come after one character is injured. The torrential rainstorm that occurs during the finale provides both great sound and visuals. This is why I have always remained a fan of found footage movies, because elements like this really draw you into the film, and don’t let you go until they want to.
The signature stick figures and piles of rocks are back, of course, and are another example of this film taking the original ideas to the extreme. Sure, the they were somewhat creepy when I saw the first film, but I never had a reason to actually be afraid of them when they appeared. However, in perhaps the best scene of Blair Witch, Wingard and Barrett show us exactly why we should be scared of those stick figures, and it is a fantastic shock moment.
The aspect of the woods messing with time again makes things more dire for our characters, and even comes back in a very interesting way at the end. Without getting into too much detail about what happens, the entire finale inside the house is an amazing sequence that includes more great visuals, and also a dread-inducing scene of claustrophobia. I was clutching my chest the whole time and didn’t breathe again until the credits came up.
Blair Witch is a genuinely scary and fresh take on the franchise. While it may at times feel like a rehash of the original, it revels in at first giving you something that feels familiar, then hitting you with something else completely unexpected and shocking. I would definitely recommend seeing it in the theater to get the full effect of the wonderful sound design, and to experience the world of Blair Witch like you never have before.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Stars: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott
Release: September 16, 2016
Studio/ Production Co: Lionsgate
Length: 89 minutes
Sub-Genre: Found footage