When you’re making a sequel, you basically have two options: you can do something new, or you can do the same old thing. And while striking out into new territory is an undeniably exciting enterprise, there does come a time in the history of most franchises when you simply have to go back to basics, and remind audiences of why they even cared about this story in the first place.
The Blair Witch Project had only one other sequel before Blair Witch came along – the ambitious but very flawed Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 – and yet its legacy is still as formidable as any other horror series. The first movie was an independent feature told in the “found footage” format, which was still pretty novel at the time, and it was produced so completely off the radar that the filmmakers were able to convince many audience members that The Blair Witch Project was a documentary instead of a fictional feature. The film itself was a strange and effective chiller, but its memory has since been tarnished by that unpopular sequel, by the mixed-blessing that the found footage genre would eventually become, and by the general sense of betrayal that some audience members felt after that marketing gimmick was revealed.
Seventeen years later, and sixteen years after the last official sequel, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett have returned to the well, and they are determined to make a splash. Their new film Blair Witch follows the the original movie in both chronology and style. It stars James Allen McCune as the brother of the ill-fated Heather Donahue, who disappeared in 1999 and left only some creepy footage behind. When he finds new footage on the internet, footage which implies that maybe (just maybe) his sister is still alive, he brings his friends along on a camping trip-slash-expedition into the Burkittsville woods, where some really creepy things start to happen.
Blair Witch works very much like the first film: it starts out as a straightforward documentary, being produced by young adults who have no idea what they’re getting into. The audience is way ahead of them, and so we wait in suspense for all the unexplained phenomena to scare the bejeezus out of everybody. And just when you think it’s never going to happen, it finally happens, and then it starts building and building until it turns into a great big avalanche of madness. The final act of Blair Witch features some truly terrifying scares, and if some of them don’t make a lot of sense, well… the first Blair Witch Project didn’t always make sense either.
Sometimes you just have to pick your battles. As with any found footage film, certain questions inevitably arise, like why everyone keeps filming everything all the time, even when they’re violently ill or sleeping. Or the question of who, exactly, even assembled this footage, since the conclusion of Blair Witch simultaneously implies that only a small portion of these tapes will ever be discovered, but also – by the very nature of the film’s existence – that all of it obviously has.
But then again, by this point, anybody who actually buys a ticket to see a found footage movie has some idea of what they’re getting into. Complaining about the fundamental premise of the genre, while not altogether unreasonable, is breaking the contract. We are actively suspending our disbelief any time we see a movie. At least found footage movies are upfront about their artifice nowadays.
And Blair Witch is very upfront. It’s basically just The Blair Witch Project, again, and in that regard it reminds us all that there’s still some juice left in the found footage genre. You don’t have to add 3D or oscillating fan gadgets to be invested in the horror befalling people who, for one reason another, happen to be filming themselves. You just have to thrust reasonably believable people into situations that defy reason, and then watch them squirm. The fact that Blair Witch can have a similarly unsettling impact as The Blair Witch Project proves that the foundation of the found footage genre is still strong. And that’s something you just can’t get from watching the first movie all over again. Doing it once is a fluke. Doing it twice, and getting a serious reaction from the audience both times, is proof that the Blair Witch formula works.
And yes, that means Blair Witch is technically formulaic, but no, that’s not necessarily an insult. Blair Witch is a scary story to tell in the dark, and like all the best scary stories it tends to be told over and over again, by different great storytellers, with little differences. Here we find Blair Witch revisiting the scares of the first movie with all-new characters and some updated shocks, in an effort to reach out and grab new fans and throttle them a bit, and remind them that this particular spook story isn’t passé. And it works. Blair Witch may not be a classic in its own right, but it’s a freaky film that gets the job done, and it could very well keep The Blair Witch Project alive and popular for many years.