It seems like everyone has their own Blair Witch Project story, from claims that the film didn't frighten them at all, to those who thought it was actually a documentary, to those (like me) who thought it was just OK, then couldn't get its imagery out of their heads for days. The 1999 film was a landmark for two reasons: First, it arguably spawned the entire "found film" genre that's begat Cloverfield, the Paranormal Activity series, and scores of lesser vehicles. Second, it did a remarkable job of spinning menace out of the mundane — some sticks bound together, the light playing on dense leaves, or a man standing with his back to us were all imbued, somehow, with horror, even as nothing "supernatural" appeared onscreen.
Those landmark qualities made it a hard act to franchise, with a single rushed sequel that was met with wide derision. And in the intervening 17 years (jesus christ), the tropes of found footage have gone from TBWP's freshness to constructs nearly as familiar as a cop on his last investigation before his retirement, the promiscuous teens partying by a remote lake, or the girl who is so good at her job but so freakin' bad at love. In fact, there's even a series of anthology films called V/H/S that mock the conventions of the genre... a series, in fact, that contained segments by Blair Witch director Adam Wingard, who in addition to his found footage dabbling helmed two of my favorite scary, genre-challenging movies: Homage to the 80s unstoppable killer The Guest, and a brilliant upending of the home invasion genre, You're Next. If I were in charge, that's exactly who I'd put at the helm of a TBWP sequel, so my hopes were high... until the film began, and I realized we were looking at nothing special at all.
Blair Witch is credibly linked to the first film, presenting us with James (James Allen McCune), the adult paramedic who lost his sister Heather at age four, during the events of TBWP. After seeing some blurry footage of a woman inside a mysterious house said to be found in the woods where Heather was lost, James enlists three friends, including the ubiquitous documentary film student (in this case, a woman named Lisa, played by Callie Hernandez) to head back into the woods to see where the tape was left and to, he hopes, figure out what happened to his sister.
But right away, the film starts breaking the rules of the genre, and not in any cool, subversive way. The "found" footage is slickly edited, with transitions between scenes, constant reaction shots, and voice-overs...which, sure, fine, perhaps that can be sold if you argue that whoever found the film took the time to package it. But the film is also chock full of self-conscious flubs and static/abrupt loud noises intended to indicate that a camera has started shooting. What editor of footage he or she found would cut a voice-overed montage of the crew getting ready to go out, then leave in all the "BUZZ-BLATS" of a device being powered on?
Then again, perhaps the device of the abrupt loud equipment noises was an effort to gin up jump scares in a film disappointingly short of the real thing. While yes, we do get plenty of classic TBWP panicked run-through-the-dark-woods footage (all of which remains pretty effective) the film is larded with a seemingly pointless and tangential Cronenberg rip-off subplot involving an injury to the extremities, and, in complete opposition to the suspenseful mystery of the first film, "spooky" (it totally isn't) footage of what happens to the friends as they are picked off one by one.
That might be the film's biggest failing, right there: It shows us too much. TBWP's power was that it could terrify by showing almost nothing, and letting our overwrought brains do the rest. There was only one moment in Blair Witch that matched that, when a character gets trapped in a tunnel and your head starts playing out possible scenarios, with a swift death coming up as the best possible option.
And as the film reaches what feels like an manufactured frenzy of a conclusion, it shows you everything, swapping any of the first film's terrifying uncertainty for obvious, fully filmed supernatural explanation — in the process, making it pretty much like any present-day found footage movie distributed solely via Netflix.
It's frustrating, and disappointing, because one expects more from Wingard, and hopes for more from a movie with the iconic words "Blair Witch" in the title. But, really, who knows — TBWP was in many ways lightning in a bottle, a once-in-a-genre thing. Could anyone have done it justice in today's found footage savvy world? I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that if this film hadn't been made under the TBWP banner, it would have ended up straight to streaming, not in a theatre near you.