"The Blair Witch Project" never got under my skin the way it did for those who first saw it in 1999. To its credit, it is one of the few found footage horror films that leaves a lot up to the imagination, but its overall quality has staled to an ineffective degree. What is undeniably admirable about the original hit is just how pure its intentions are, how directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez simply wanted to show audiences how frightening an innocent trip to the woods can be. Adam Wingard, the talent behind 2014's "The Guest," faces a wholly different task for "Blair Witch," which is to live up to numerous expectations and scare new generations of viewers. This approach ultimately hinders Wingard's attempts to throw us in the backs of our seats with our knees curled up to our eyes. It has its moments, but "Blair Witch" disappointingly goes the easy route by playing to expectations and by doing the exact opposite of its predecessor: letting us hear more and see more this time.
After finding a mysterious video online, James Donahue (James Allen McCune) is convinced his sister Heather, who went missing in a forest near Burkittsville, Maryland nearly twenty years ago, is still alive. Determined to find her, he assembles his friends, including film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Peter (Brandon Scott), and Ashley (Corbin Reid), equipping them with nearly every single modern recording gadget known to man. The foursome soon meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), a couple with an odd fascination with the fabled Blair Witch that supposedly haunts the woods and abducts anyone who enters them. Soon after the group enters the Blair Witch's domain to find the house where Heather disappeared, it doesn't take long for them to realize that they may never leave the woods at all.
Much like the first film, the plot here is simple enough, yet somehow Wingard finds a way to disorient us right from the get go with rapid-fire cutting between the multiple cameras held and worn by the characters. To be fair, this trailer-for-itself style of editing is what today's young generation of filmmakers are obsessed with, particularly on sites like YouTube and Vimeo, and Wingard is adamant on reminding us on how tech-savvy we've all become. But this does little to encourage us to hop on board with James and Company as they begin their dark descent into the Black Hills woods, because within two minutes, it's already clear that Wingard values the technology rather than the people handling it. Camcorders and GoPros might as well have top billing here.
Fans' hearts will sink when they quickly realize that "Blair Witch" really is "The Blair Witch Project" with an absurd amount of loud noises and a few unearned glimpses of the witch herself (or itself) sprinkled onto it. I suppose this isn't such a shock considering Hollywood's ongoing trend of recycling the classics without giving a thought to what made them work in the first place. What's more devastating is that Wingard seems to have abandoned the style and spunk that landed him this job. (Talk about dropping from Christopher Nolan to Zack Snyder levels of creative.) Watching him play it so aggravatingly safe here is an insult to the genre, its fans, and to his now-tainted career.
Whatever semblance of inspiration "Blair Witch" has can be found in its admittedly impressive finale. After replicating "The Blair Witch Project" beat for beat during the first hour and ten minutes, Wingard finally plunges his characters, and the audience, into a labyrinth of terror for the last ten minutes. It isn't anything remarkable or mind-blowing, nor does it give "Blair Witch" its own identity, but Wingard pours all his love for the genre into the ending, making it the most dynamic sequence of the film. Nevertheless, these last few moments feel like a superior short film tacked onto its predecessor, adding absolutely nothing of substance to everything that came before it.
Wingard's ultimate failure here is that of the countless found footage horror flicks that exist in the shadow of "The Blair Witch Project." Audiences have become so numb to these films because, even though they are, by design, told from a completely subjective point of view, they heighten our awareness of what is lurking off-screen, waiting to get the jump on us when we should least expect it. Wingard believes that we are willingly allowing him to scare us, when in fact we go in completely on our guard, hoping that the film will give us enough reason to drop it so that we may actually walk out of the theater hesitating to sleep at night anymore.