REVIEW | 'Blair Witch' entertaining, but not memorable

Making a sequel to the found footage horror film “ The Blair Witch Project” is daunting not only because sequels to iconic, highly influential movies tend to blow but also because the original “Blair Witch” came out (in 1999) at a perfect time. It came out at a time when the “found footage horror” style was fresh and innovative; there were people who thought “The Blair Witch Project” was real and there were really people missing in the woods due to a creepy Witch. Now, that’s scary, and kind of mind boggling. This freshness added an additional layer of realism, complimenting the film’s micro budget less-is-more approach to horror.

Now, 17 years later years later we have the sequel “Blair Witch” — directed by up and comer Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett — and it’s also a found footage horror movie. The problem is that now the found footage horror style is a gimmick and it’s played out. And in “Blair Witch,” Wingard doesn’t really challenge this stale, limited format in any substantial way. Maybe it’s unfair to expect him to do so but this film could have been done so easily without that gimmick. In fact it would have been a good way to immediately distinguish it from the original.

However, the found footage issue speaks to the larger issue “Blair Witch” faces, which is that it doesn’t cover much new ground or feel very innovative. This is a shame considering the filmmakers. Wingard and Barrett’s last film “The Guest” was an audacious, gleeful, utterly unpredictable genre amalgamation. By contrast, “Blair Witch” feels more like a safe studio made feature trying to cash in on both the “Blair Witch” name and the found footage gimmick. It’s not a bad movie by any means; there are some fun and tense sequences throughout but overall it feels too familiar both in the context of the original and the horror genre.

The set up is intriguing. We’re introduced to brand new generation of youngins eager to explore those creepy Maryland woods with cameras in hand. Technology is more advanced this time around, meaning our witch hunters have GPS’s and a lot more cameras, including mini ones that go in your ear and a drone. The filmmaker is Lisa (Callie Hernandez) who’s making a documentary about her friend James, (James Allen McCune) who’s older sister Heather disappeared during the events of the first film. He believes he’s discovered footage of her whereabouts and wants to investigate.

This brother-sister relationship provides what should be a compelling personal bridge connecting both films. Pity that Wingard and Barrett neglect it. In the end it’s simply a way to get James, Lisa and their friends out to the woods. The filmmakers don’t explore James’ bond with his sister or his fascination/obsession with finding out what happened to her in any depth. In fact When they reach the woods the relationship angle is abandoned (and isn’t brought up again till the end) and we mostly get a rehash of the first film, with our group getting lost and experiencing the same old thrills— mysterious snapping branches, those creepy figures made of twigs etc. —with more camera angles. Some of these redundant thrills work and some fall flat but it’s disappointing that the James-Heather relationship is so undercooked; it should be the emotional core. Instead, it feels like an after thought.

To their credit, Wingard and Barrett do find a way to expand on the “Blair Witch” mythology and add dimension to “the woods” themselves during the last half hour. Without spoiling anything they provide a rather trippy explanation for why The Witch is so darn good at making campers disappear. But in the end it’s not enough. By and large, things still progress the way you expect them to and the film settles for the typical found footage horror movie ending; an ending that used to be shocking but now feels like a cop out. “Blair Witch” ends with an underwhelming thud.

Speaking of the last half hour, all hell breaks lose. It’s a relentless, schizophrenic, beefed up version of the “Blair Witch Project” finale with our Witch hunters running for their lives. There’s more dirt, blood and heavy wheezing, along with furious rainstorms and tents flying around everywhere. This section yields some genuinely unsettling moments (a claustrophobic sequence in a tunnel) but it can also feel a little excessive at times—hysterical and over the top rather than terrifying. It sort of makes you yearn for the subtlety and simplicity of the original.

Yet, “Blair Witch” is still a decent movie and I can see an enthusiastic public response. Although I don’t see this one being remembered at years end, let alone years from now. For me, while I was mildly entertained, I expected more from Wingard and Barrett.