The Blair Witch Project mythos had lied dormant for nearly a decade and a half when Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett were able to resurrect it for the third entry into the trilogy. 2016’s Blair Witch is a film which expounds on what happened after the events of the first film (it blows right by the second one). For a flick to come out this long after its source material you would hope that it appropriately leverages and evolves on the formula in a way that embraces the world of the original and modernizes it for a current audience. Were these things accomplished? Which Witch is the best Witch? Should you rent a Ditch Witch? Some of these answers and more in the spoiler filled review, below.
Reviewed by: Mark
Roughly 15 years after the events of the original film, James Donahue (James McCune) finds a video potentially showing his long lost sister (Heather from the original film) being chased through a house in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland. This is a new lead in the search for his missing sister, so he rallies his friends Peter (Brandon Scott), Lisa (Callie Hernandez), and Ashley (Corbin Reid) to help him find the video’s YouTube poster and by extension more information on where he can find that goddamned house. Arriving at the home of the poster, the crew meets Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) some admittedly backwoods folk who have been exploring the forest for their entire lives. The six unite to scour the area where Lane says he found the tapes that he posted online.
After spending the night in the wilderness (one paragraph in and I’m running out of synonyms) our protagonists are greeted by a slew of blair witch stick-figure dolls hanging around their campsite. Understandably perturbed they begin to quibble about the importance of actually completing their task. Eventually Lisa discovers that the dolls were in fact replicas made by Lane and Talia in an effort to scare and intrigue the core group. They are cast into the forest on their own to find their way home.
The remaining foursome continue to explore their surroundings and soon spend another night in their tents. Ashley, who sustained a nasty foot laceration early on day one, begins to decline in health as a result of a severe arboreal infection. Realizing that they gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing they ever do, they pull out their GPS and try to get back to their car. Wouldn’t you know it, the malevolent force that we’ve all come to know and love has other plans for them. They spend the whole day walking in a big damn circle in a move the directly harkens back to the original film.
Over the course of the next day(?) the four are gradually separated. Peter gets hit by a falling tree (turns out they make a sound). Ashley gets nabbed trying to rescue their drone (they brought a drone). Lane and Talia show back up claiming that they’ve been separated for multiple days despite it only having been a few hours. They separate once again after Talia gets broken in half by voodoo. Lisa and James are separated but they find each other almost immediately and are chased onto the front lawn of the ol’ Rustin Parr house. Shit really starts to escalate. James heads inside, determined to find his sister. Lisa is a sane human being who stays outside because fuck that, but she is eventually chased inside by a special guest appearance of a terribly rendered Slender Man lookalike.
Inside the house, as you might imagine, shit meets fan. James runs around like a loon before hitting a dead end in the attic. Lisa, eventually entering the house with something chasing her, heads into another wing of the house (seriously how big is this place?) where she encounters Lane. He pushes her into a crawlspace claiming that he can go free if he gives Lisa to the witch. Lisa crawls through some tunnels to escape and eventually ends up in the house’s basement. Here she once again encounters Lane, but this time she kills him by stabbing him in the chest. Smart. Eventually, she makes her way up the attic where she is reunited with James (who apparently has just been jacking it this whole time). In the process, the exact same images are shown from the opening YouTube video, revealing that there’s been some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey fuckery happening this whole time. The two attempt to comfort each other and the Witch gradually closes in. Some magic happens before they both get dead in very unsatisfactory ways. End.
What the Movie Does Right
After having discussed this with the other gents, we were legitimately struggling to truly encapsulate what the movie does right, but it deserves at least an attempt. The script builds pretty adequately upon the first movie. Not only does it at least head fake toward some search party story that happened after the events of the first film, but it also directly references some of the witch’s old tricks. Building on that superpower of spatial distortion, we’re also introduced to the new ability of time infundibulation. Lane and Talia’s adventure seems to be days or even weeks longer than that of the core group, and Lisa and James directly discuss the fact that the sun hasn’t come up in way too many hours. There are probably better, more subtle, methods of incorporating this into the story, but at least this film added some tricks to the repertoire of the Witch.
Beyond that, I suppose it should be said that at the very least this movie looks pretty good. Where the first movie is chalk full of film grain and pretty low-grade filming (they were literally amateurs with low grade film equipment dropped into the middle of nature), Blair Witch is bringing HD audio and 1080p digital film to the table. Although I don’t think this helps the timbre of the film, it does arguably lower the barrier to entry. Having revisited the original film fairly recently, I can tell you that the first bit is actually pretty hard to get into. This one does not have that same issue.
What the Movie Does Wrong
Not to sound cynical, but how much time do you have?
Let’s start with editing. Both audio and video editing in this entry is actively trying to give you a headache. Where the video editing of most action scenes is roughly as nausea inducing as the first Bourne film, the audio is doing its own part to actively assault your brain. Within the world of the film you have to ask “which Frederick County sheriff’s department intern edited this thing?” Outside of the world you are asking “what intern edited this thing.” Despite the fact that the film quality makes the movie slightly easier to watch, it seems as though the direction given was to make it actively difficult to watch during any scene where anything more than dialogue is happening. What is most frustrating about this is I (we) like most everything else that Wingard and Barrett have done. What happened here?
That’s gonna transition us right into the story. Sure, there is some organic development from the original story. James is Heather’s brother (apparently roughly 15 years younger), he misses her and is obsessed with her disappearance. That’s a solid premise, but it takes up maybe 3 minutes of this script, and I’m being generous. Outside of that and the aforementioned references to tricks that happened in the first film, the script just functions as a vehicle to deliver tropes and jump scares directly into the viewers ocular nerve. Why are there tunnels? Why is there a drone? Why is there a CG slender-monster in the forest? None of these things are necessary, but they’re also the only thing that this movie does that is memorable. It earns none of its intensity. They’re all just copy-pastes from the original movie or tropes.
This gets me to a larger point. I would wager that this movie taken in a vacuum would still have a less-than-favorable score were it branded under its original title of The Woods. However, when you go a step further and shoehorn it into the Blair Witch mythos you invite yourself to an even higher level of criticism. How is this the product that was created after 15 years of meditation on the subject? More realistically, this is a victim of “we just need to update some IP” methodology. On its own, it’s forgettable. Jammed into the canon of BWP, it’s insulting. It’s a transparent cash grab. Boo this movie.
Story: 3 - At the very least it namechecks the original movie and expands the Witch’s abilities by adding time and daylight manipulation. Funnily enough, that is also the very most it does. This script relies on more tropes and contrivances than late season Friends episode. Boo. Roasted.
World-Building / Immersion: 2 - Any world building it did was leveraged from the original film. The biggest culprit here is the editing. A combination of seizure inducing lights, frenetic editing, and actively upsetting audio takes this thing from bad to worse. It’s not only that the edits are tough to watch, it’s also that they make no sense in the context of the “found footage” element of the film. This is a hard watch.
Scare-Factor: 4.5 - Although most of the scares here are jump-scares, they’re at least still moderately effective. I remain convinced that I could place any of my less horror-inclined friends in front of this one and they would be perturbed to say the least. None of the scares are earned, but they’re still scares so it’s at least near-average.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 5 - I would argue (and this was a point of contention for our podcast) that this is judicious lack thereof. Although, they do go in on some CG monsters for the ending, they’re ultimately only on screen for a second or two. Sets are decent and I already lumped my qualms with editing into immersion.
Overall: 3.5 - This movie sucks. To clarify this movie sucks regardless of whether or not it’s called “The Woods” or “Blair Witch.” It has a lazy script and its frenetic editing make it actively hard to watch. I would like to put this one behind me. For the record, Book of Secrets: Blair Witch 2 is the better BWP sequel.