The Blair Witch Project is a modern horror masterpiece. The film's "getting lost in the dark woods" terror is timeless, but it's also a product of a very specific place in time. In short, The Blair Witch Project as we knew it in 1999 will never happen again.
While not the inventor of the technique, The Blair Witch Project brought the found footage trope to the masses. For many people, it was their first brush with the immediacy and grittiness of the genre. Gone was the precise cinematic direction of Psycho or the star power of a crazed Jack Nicholson. The Blair Witch Project felt real. Using unknown actors and almost no actual gore or reveal, the film sucked me in like no other horror movie besides Paranormal Activity (for the very same reasons). The Blair Witch Project changed everything.
Then, it got a horrible, conventional sequel. Then, it got another sequel, which I saw last weekend. How do you possibly re-create the impact the original had on the unsuspecting, pre-social media audiences of 1999? The short answer is you don’t, but that wouldn’t make for a very compelling blog post.
The long answer starts with, “get Adam Wingard, modern indie horror darling, to direct it.” Check and check. I wasn’t excited for the film, then titled “The Woods,” until I learned Wingard was attached. His darkly funny, brutal take on home invasion (You’re Next) and his tone-shifting, genre-bending thriller (The Guest) have both made me a huge fan of his work. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a better director to choose in 2016.
As talented as Wingard is, he has massive shoes to fill. Again: how can you possibly re-create the impact of the original? Wingard plays it straight, with expanded found footage techniques like camera headsets for first-person scares, a (mostly wasted) drone-mounted camera, and a traditional handheld camera. There’s nothing particularly wrong with his dive into found footage. His film’s most blatant sin is simply being too loud where the original was quiet. He did more where the original did less. One of the golden rules of horror is "less is more." That rule here is largely trampled over by a parade of jump scares, cheesy video effects, and a breathless pace.
The original Blair Witch is a slow burn with lots of air. The three filmmaker characters spend most of the running time wandering through the woods. The dread builds and builds until it's unbearable by the final sequence. The film lets the setting work at its own pace. Getting lost in the woods at night is already so very frightening, as long as the filmmaker allows the audience to get sucked in. The Blair Witch Project’s atmosphere and pacing is almost hypnotic— you lulled into a rhythm along with the characters. Keep walking, one foot in front of the other, at a steady tempo. Sequences in daylight are a slow-paced descent into madness. Then, like clockwork, night falls and the scares begin.
Wingard’s Blair Witch never lets a sense of place or rhythm get established. The situation goes from slightly eerie to totally screwed in record time. Some of the more interesting psychological ideas, like two returning characters claiming they wandered in the woods for 5 days even though the group split only 20 minutes ago, never get enough time to land.
Granted, Blair Witch gets intense. It gets loud. It gets claustrophobic. The final ten minutes in the cramped hallways of an abandoned house had me peeking through the space between my fingers. There’s a difference, though, between sound and fury and truly atmospheric filmmaking. I was hoping Wingard would re-create the primal dread of the original, where you feel the pit in your stomach form as you realize the sun is setting and you can't stop the night from coming. He traded in that sensation for extra special effects, a drone camera, and more characters.
Revisiting a classic film is a thankless job (just ask Paul Feig), and I never expected Blair Witch to top the dizzying heights of the original. I was only hoping it would be quieter.
[Next week, more original fiction! I wrote a short horror story of my own. Cheers.]