Review: Blair Witch (2016)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #658

Also known as The Woods
Number of Views: One
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Sub-Genre: Supernatural/Found Footage
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $5,000,000
Box Office: $45,200,000
Running Time: 89 minutes
Director: Adam Wingard
Producers: Keith Calder, Roy Lee, Steven Schneider, Jessica Wu
Screenplay: Simon Barrett
Special Effects: Tony Lazarowich
Visual Effects: Andrew Karr, Takashi Takeoka
Cinematography: Robby Baumgartner
Score: Adam Wingard
Editing: Louis Cioffi
Studios: Room 101, Snoot Entertainment, Vertigo Entertainment
Distributor: Lionsgate
Stars: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Valorie Curry, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson

Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] Henry Hall & His Orchestra “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”

[2] Adam Wingard “The Woods”

There are few films as utterly divisive as The Blair Witch Project. Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s found footage frightener is either one of the most terrifying movies ever committed to celluloid or one of the most shamefully overrated, dependent on which side of the fence you fall on. Personally I believe it put nary a hiking boot wrong, and while I understand why some may have found it much ado about nothing in particular, seldom has my skin felt so loose around my bones as it did for the last five mortifying minutes. I guess a lot depends on what you find scary and your willingness to trek through the Black Hills Forest without a trail of breadcrumbs to bail you out. I know one thing, orienteering appealed a great deal less after this particular ill-omened ramble. Say what you will about it, but $250 million in box office revenue is certainly not to be sniffed at.

Naturally Artisan Entertainment were keen to further cash in on this phenomena while the going was good, and eighteen months later, Joe Berlinger’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 stepped up to the plate with high hopes of emulating its predecessor’s outrageous fortunes. Alas it was not to be, as while still turning a decent enough profit, Berlinger’s more mainstream effort was pretty much unanimously panned by critics and viewed only as an exercise in milking the cash cow. Interestingly, those who dislike the original tend to prefer its sequel, but those of us chomping at the bit for another night roughing it in these worrisome woods were left pondering what might have been. With that, the hysteria passed, but not before encouraging every other aspiring filmmaker on the planet with limited funds at their disposal to take a stab at this bare-bones sub-genre.

I’ve spoken on numerous occasions about why I find found footage films to be a long, hard slog with minimal pay-off and have seen precious little over the past decade to convince me otherwise. Granted there have been sweet spots and Adam Robitel’s The Taking of Deborah Logan is one such high point; but on the whole the output has been uninspiring to say the very least. That said, when it was announced that Lionsgate had decided to resurrect the series and deliver it back to its origins, I couldn’t help but release a tiny squeal of delight at the prospect. Better yet was the personnel involved, with Tennessee-born talent, Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest), and his frequent collaborator Simon Barrett helming the project. Them’s two damn good reasons to be decidedly chipper right there.

Blair Witch could have gone one of two ways for Wingard, as while the odds of it turning a net profit were overwhelmingly in his favor, failure to deliver an end product that pleased both long-suffering fans and the original’s bitter detractors would be made very much public. As far as acid tests are concerned, this one was of the most astringent variety as chances like this to further your craft don’t come along every day and this one had the potential to either make or break him. As for me, well I had no shortage of faith that the boy would do good as he had supplied me no reason whatsoever previously to believe otherwise. The real burning question was whether or not lightning could be captured in a bottle twice as the audience he was pitching to would no longer be quite so ill-prepared for whatever he had in store for them. However, Wingard is on the incline for good reason and can never be accused of venturing forth without a spring in his stride.

Familiarity breeds contempt apparently, although where Blair Witch is concerned, there appears no other place to start than point A. Once again we join a group of twentysomething filmmakers as they head off to Burkittsville for a documented dose of local folklore. Led by student of film, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), the four-strong group also comprises Peter (Brandon Scott), his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), and most critically James (James Allen McCune). The reason why James is so pivotal to proceedings is that his own sister Heather was claimed by these very woods two decades back and it still doesn’t sit right with him. The group make a pit stop en route for the obligatory interviews and local conspiracy theorists Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) insist on tagging along for the ride. By my count, that’s six lambs for the slaughtering, and there’s a clue in there for anyone familiar with Wingard and Barrett’s body of work.

The decision to hike up the numbers came from their side of the table, and given that we all know the legend by now, this suggests a far brisker pace and emphasis on incident. Naturally build-up would prove critical to pulling the rug from beneath six pairs of blistered feet in unison but one look at Wingard’s Tape 56 segment from V/H/S/2 should already be aware of his ability to shift from nought-to-sixty in an erratic heartbeat. You’re darn tooting he’s looking to cut to the chase just as much as his expectant audience; perhaps more so given his eagerness to be the one leading this ill-fated charge. Lest we not forget he was seventeen when The Blair Witch Project hit the multiplexes and it did every bit the number on his fraying nerves as it did I. Hands don’t come much safer than that.

So what’s new then? Gadgetry would be one thing. Armed with a ground-piloted drone cam to send skyward for visual recon; the group no longer need run the risk of becoming babes in the woods. Or so you would think. You see, the think about the Black Hills Forest is that it can be troublesome seeing the woods for the trees. There are no clearly signposted exits, no halfway checkpoint beacons, and no hope of ever escaping these woodland trappings once those tents are pitched.

Instead, the welcome party consists of bundles of twigs left suspended outside their two-berthers while they catch up on their sleepless nights. Say what you will about 17th-Century witch Elly Kedward and her Coffin Rock cronies but their arts and crafts are simply to die for. Now it’s only a matter of time.

That’s as far into these here woods as I’m within my sound mind to take you as surprise is only so when approached in a nonplussed manner. However, I will say this – you won’t be required to skim stones for the customary two-thirds as it all goes off long before the notorious dilapidated house pops up into plain view. Where Wingard nails it down so well is the sound design (never anything less than fundamental to the fright where he is concerned) as he makes this just as much about creepers than peepers.

Given that we can no longer trust our eyes to keep us in the loop as vision is sorely impaired, every last snapped twig or distant wail is intensified by the power of two and the uppermost is made of keeping both the audience and our petrified ramblers firmly on the back foot. Each baleful revelation becomes our bitter pill to swallow also and Wingard and Barrett are only too happy to play feeders.

It’s not all toasted marshmallows by the fire as interesting additions such as the drone camera are not taken full advantage of and Wingard can’t resist revealing the titular beast in all her gangly glory in a closing act that seems to forget that less is more. Granted it’s little more than a fleeting glimpse but the original film’s greatest strength was that it upheld a sense of mystery right up to the final shattering frame and no monstrosity Wingard and Barrett can create will ever be as scary as what our own imaginations could conjure up. However, these are minor quibbles in the greater scheme of things, as Blair Witch is respectful enough of its origins not to deviate too far from the beaten track and does far more right than wrong.

So here’s the thing. A lot has changed since 1999 and audiences are way past the point of being suckered into believing that what they’re witnessing is authentic by cunning marketing and viral outbreaks. Chances of this stacking up to the same pile of rocks as The Blair Witch Project were just as slim as nothing and nothing Wingard and his wingman could do were ever likely to disprove such theory. That is simply fact I’m afraid. That said, what they achieve here with nominal space for manoeuvre is still plenty more than commendable. Whippet-paced, discombobulating in the best way, and stuffed to its gills with things that go bump in the night, it offers a brisk stroll through the dark forest to a place that once haunted rather a lot of dreams and that’s still a ramble worth taking in my book.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Dread Factor: 4/5

For the Dread-Heads: Let’s be honest, The Blair Witch Project was many things, but incident packed wasn’t one of them. Our masters of ceremonies ramp things up considerably here, with nary a minute passing without some kind of paranormal activity playing out. However, what cools the blood most are the woods themselves and the double takes we are forced to make every time we hear a shriek in the darkness. Do you know what? I’ve just realized that you’ve had your back turned to me the whole time I’ve been jabbering on. Didn’t your mother teach you that is incredibly rude? Honestly, sometimes I don’t know why I bother.

Read The Blair Witch Project Appraisal
Read Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 Appraisal
Read You’re Next Appraisal
Read V/H/S/2 Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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1 Comment

  1. Good appraisal, Rich. The original was filmed in MD and I used to work in Hagerstown and Baltimore so I know the state well. Apparently, the town was annoyed because they had so much tourist traffic after BW and they had a lot of things destroyed. Needless to say, the new approach to the film I might like to see. I try and keep an open mind. I did where Evil Dead was concerned and had a pleasant surprise.

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