The Blair Witch Project was a legitimate cultural phenomenon when in was released in 1999, partly because it embraced a growing web culture and lo-fi viral marketing. The plethora of imitators and spiritual successors did little to diminish the mark directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez made on the landscape. It’s a shame that this retread doesn’t depart too much from a 17 year old formula.
Ignoring the actual sequel released in 2000, BLAIR WITCH is a direct continuation of the original film. James Donahue (James Allen McCune), brother to Heather Donahue from the first outing, is obsessed with finding out what happened to his sister. When footage surfaces online indicating she might still be out there, he and fellow college students Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott) head out into the Black Hills again. Joined by locals Talia (Valorie Curry) and Lane (Wes Robinson), it isn’t long before strange things start happening to the group.
The technology has changed since 1999, with the group armed with miniature headpiece cameras and airborne drones, but it isn’t long before BLAIR WITCH starts to follow the patterns of its predecessor. When the group becomes lost, symbols start appearing and nocturnal disappearances occur with alarming regularity. Even though some attempt is made at expanding the mythology around the Blair Witch, and there are some clever twists on our perception of the passage of time, it is otherwise a mostly beat-for-beat remake of The Blair Witch Project.
Opening with the same type of text on screen that fans are familiar with, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett follow the sequel philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, add more of it.” There are more victims, more cameras, and far more overt references to supernatural phenomena. The latter is problematic, as it robs the mythos of some of its mystery, but the plethora of cameras also mean that absolutely no disappearance is left completely unsolved. With all that coverage, the film is simply not frightening, no matter how many characters suddenly appear in front of camera without warning.
The overall approach is inherently flawed from the start. The actors don’t share the same naive cluelessness as the unknowns of the original, and James Allen McCune in particular will be known to horror fans from numerous episodes of The Walking Dead. The “acting” is present throughout, and rather than feigning found footage, the production always feels consciously constructed. The additional cameras ultimately mean we are seeing even more juddering and fuzzy footage of trees, just from different angles. Having said that, the technical achievement of editing all these pieces of footage together is to be commended, as the flow is seamless.
BLAIR WITCH certainly wants to expand the world-building initiated by Myrick and Sánchez almost twenty years ago, but ultimately feels hamstrung by its faithfulness to a formula. Indeed, it is less successful because of the legacy it follows, and new initiates might want to skip the original altogether and jump on board here for the inevitable franchise. Otherwise, this feels like the kind of effortless follow-up that genre fans have come to expect from the direct-to-home market.