Blessed be September, cinematic home to the C average horror film. The doldrums of the local cineplex have settled in comfortably; studios lay in wait for the turning of the leaves and Halloween-themed, pumpkin-spice fever to take hold before releasing their more confident horror films in October. “Blair Witch,” Adam Wingard’s wildly too-late sequel (threequel?) to 1999’s genre-demolishing megaton, “The Blair Witch Project” is nearly the Platonic ideal of an Unremarkable Horror Film plunked down with perfect appropriateness in this, the season of paranormal silver-screen mediocrity.
Not enough lip service can be paid to how large of an impression directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’, “The Blair Witch Project” left on the horror genre. The film single-handedly birthed the contemporary found-footage technique that spawned a list of imitators as long as your arm and came bundled in a brilliant marketing campaign that posited the events of the film as terrifyingly documentarian. In the 17 years since its release, filmmakers of various pedigrees have iterated on TBWP’s original conceit, pushing the genre now to its most tired extremities. It is then with curious and depressing happenstance that Wingard’s sequel to the granddaddy of the genre arrives today, with nothing more to do than to rearrange the place settings at a table covered in cobwebs and have the audacity to announce that dinner is served.
Much like its predecessor, the flat-footedly titled, “Blair Witch,” opens with a text preamble–what the audience is about to experience is a compilation of real footage discovered in the Black Hills Forest of Maryland in 2016. Never mind that this “found” footage, combined with the footage from the original film contains enough textual evidence of a genuine, murderous, spectral nightmare that should prompt the U.S Government to launch an orbital missile strike on the forest, or at least, maybe put up a fence. James Donahue (James Allen McCune), brother to the long-lost protagonist, Heather, of the original film is prompted to gather a cadre of friends to explore the witchy woods after discovering evidence of his sister’s continued survival in the Black Hills on YouTube.
Meanwhile the filmic conceit comes into play as Donahue’s film-student friend, Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez) decides to document the journey for college credits. “You really think your sister is out there after all these years?,” Arlington prompts the perpetually expressionless Donahue. “And what about the legends?” By “legends” Arlington is referencing the fact that in this filmic universe the footage of “The
Blair Witch Project” exists, is commercially available, and is justification enough for audiences to feel zero pathos for people who have bumbled into the literal devil’s lair with nary a flask of holy water or improvised flame thrower between them. Meanwhile more expository dialogue is spent introducing and justifying the existence of the wide variety of footage vis-a- vis Arlington’s arsenal of cameras, GPS headsets and quad-copter drone, than who these characters are and what motivates them to get out of bed in the morning. Their names are James, Lisa, Peter, Ashley, Lane and Talia. They exist on screen to get scared, scream loudly and meet a gruesome fate.
As a filmmaker, Wingard is a thoughtful craftsman– evidenced by some of his more interesting past genre exercises like “You’re Next,” (2011) and“The Guest,” (2014). Here there is no confidence in what is being presented. Some measure of a successful horror film is built off the back of expectation– tension is generated slowly through mood and dialogue with catharsis delivered in a long-overdue moment of horrific surprise or action. Instead of foreboding, Wingard assaults the audience from minute-one with perpetual discordant sounds, audio pops and faux digital distortion as if all the footage has been edited on an IBM computer from the mid 90s.Characters frequently disappear into the darkness only to pop up next to another character while inexplicably screaming. This happens so often that in a moment of unintentional self-awareness a character shouts to no one in particular, “Can everyone stop doing that?!” By the time the remaining victims bumble their way through a time paradox into the haunted gingerbread house at the center of the woods, there is so little genuine tension left to be released, the rolling credits is only partial catharsis.
It is a shame that “Blair Witch” exists to say nothing, deliver tepid, unoriginal scares and little else. Really, it’s here to trade on nostalgia, skimming a few bucks from folks while the seasonal spiced-lattes are piping hot and audiences are primed to be spooked. This time spare the ticket, get the latte.
Running time: 89 minutes
Playing in theaters now