It should have been a horrible idea to revive Blair Witch 16 years after the franchise disappeared as quickly as it took the world by storm. After all, if the failure of the underrated sequel proved nothing else, it was that much of the appeal of The Blair Witch Project was the then novel concept of found footage horror. Surely after years and years of entries in that now tired subgenre, there would be nothing that a new Blair Witch tale could possibly offer audiences, right? Well thankfully, this super secret revival sequel was handed off to director Adam Wingard and his writer Simon Barrett, two genuine talents who know how to toy with audiences. While the pair have dabbled in several horror subgenres with titles like You’re Next and The Guest, they’ve never really gone for a full on terror ride and the Blair Witch franchise provided them that opportunity with a decent budget and a fascinating mythology that had only ever just been touched on. It’s a wild ride. Buckle up!
The return to those creepy woods kicks off with James (James Allen McCune), the brother of the unfortunate girl who made the first Blair Witch Project, finding a video on YouTube that he believes shows his sister trapped in the creepy abandoned house familiar to anyone who saw the original movie. Along with his budding filmmaker friend (Callie Hernandez) and a pair of other buddies (Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid), the gang decides to head back to the scene of the crime to see what they can find. They’re equipped with cameras strapped to their ears and have a few other tools (like a drone camera) to make this production a little slicker. They then meet up with local yokels (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) who found the tape with the YouTube footage and insist on joining them in the woods. At first the camping trip seems like it will go well, but that pesky Blair Witch has a knack for manipulating reality. So it’s safe to say all is not what it seems and things won’t end well.
Wingard and Barrett waste little time setting up their terror train. There’s just enough time spent with the characters to make them endearing and remind viewers of a few rules. Then, after teasing out a first night of fake scares, things take a dark turn quickly. The duo play into The Blair Witch Project’s atmosphere of manipulated reality and a demonic presence that likes to break the minds of its victims. However, this isn’t merely another exercise in unseen fears and psychological meltdowns. Rather, it’s a rollercoaster of a horror movie that essentially piles one horrifying set piece onto another in the second half, barely giving viewers a chance to breath in a relentless scare assault. Given that Wingard and Barrett are genre lovers, they delight in piling on every type of cinematic and psychological scare they can think of. Gore, jump scares, surrealism, psychological torture, claustrophobia, monsters, hauntings, time shifts, shadows, loud noises, you name it and they use it. They use it all well too.
Getting into the details of what specific tricks the movie employs that work so well feels unfair. The trailers already reveal too much, so I won’t dare to give any of the games away. But suffice to say that the thing works like gangbusters. It’s a movie that can actually live up to the hype of the franchise and the glowing early notices. The cast are all strong and the script is tight. There are no apologies needed to enjoy the ride and even on first viewing it’s hard not to be impressed by all of the tricks and Wingard/Barrett pulled off. The decision to equip all of the main characters with a Bluetooth POV camera was clever as it allows the filmmakers to have enough coverage for suspense editing without breaking the found footage aesthetic. They are also wise enough to retain the sense of mystery and the unknown that makes this mythology so effective. Sure, you’ll get to see so much more than either of the previous movies dared, but not in a way that tediously over explains things that are better left a mystery.
More than anything else Blair Witch is a romp. Though executed with incredible craft and care, the movie is intended to play like a ride and it’s a wild one. The flick will make packed theaters scream, leap, and jump, like playthings in the filmmakers’ hands. The dead franchise might also find itself suddenly revived and if that happens, this will be a tough act to follow. Regardless, at least we have a genuinely frightening mainstream horror movie for Halloween this year. It has been too long. Hopefully the box office reflects the artistic success. These guys deserve a chance to deliver an original horror movie of this scale and ingenuity. The genre could use it too.