Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review: "Blair Witch"

“Blair Witch” reclaims the techniques and some of the sense of creeping dread that made “The Blair Witch Project” such a game-changing hit in 1999. 

Certainly, it helps erase some of the lingering bad taste from the slapped-together quickie sequel, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” which cut out all of the young filmmakers from my hometown of Orlando who dreamed up what has now become a much-copied genre: found footage thrillers.

Taken on its own, “Blair Witch” is above-board horror with some genuine scares. But it’s hard to recapture lightning in a bottle, that sense that maybe, just maybe, this lost-in-the-woods tale could be a tiny bit true.

You can go home again, but it’s hard to fool an audience using old tricks.

Director Adam Wingard and script man Simon Barrett return to the story’s roots: set 15 years after the events from “Project,” this film presents James (James Allen McCune) as the much-younger brother of Heather, the leader of a trio of novice documentarians who wandered into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, and were never seen or heard from again.

The legend of the Blair Witch remains just that: whispered stories and half-truths about a martyred woman who returned from the grave to haunt the Black Hills Woods surrounding the town.

Then James receives some grainy footage from a video memory card found in the woods that appears to show his sister. He launches his own expedition, bringing along best friend Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a young filmmaker and friend (and possibly more).

They meet up with the YouTube poster who found the clue, Darknet666, who turns out to be a local hillbilly named Lane (Wes Robinson) who wants in on the group in exchange for his assistance. He brings along his lady, Talia (Valorie Curry), who seems a little more respectful of the Blair Witch mythology than he.

They camp in the woods, and familiar things start to happen -- strange noises, those iconic stick men figures appear out of nowhere at their campsite, they find themselves walking in circles, etc. The tension quickly ratchets up, some members of the party get hurt or go missing, and we just know it’s going to culminate in that dilapidated house in the middle of the forest.

Ensuing improvements in technology make the filmmaking aspect of the story a little more palatable. That’s been a weakness of found-footage movies: why would characters in mortal terror continue to hold ungainly video cameras and conveniently aim them at their attackers? The new film gets around that by outfitting everyone with tiny ear piece cameras with a microphone. They even have a drone camera to help them find their way in the thick woods.

“Blair Witch” obviously has a much higher budget than the shoestring original, which both helps and hurts. Back in 1999, people swore they saw a witch figure chasing the kids around, when it was all purely in their minds. That’s the power of film, to use mood and emotion to trick us. This movie goes a little more overt, which it probably had to, but that only serves to remind us we’re watching a sequel.

(A personal aside: I was acquainted with the producers and directors of “The Blair Witch Project” in Orlando, and was/am good friends with the production designer who created the stick men. They actually invited me to go work on the movie, but I didn’t have eight days off to go traipse through the Maryland woods. I’m an old-school sort who believes critics shouldn’t try to dabble in creating, so it was probably for the best.)

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