You've got to wonder where the parents of Heather and James Donahue are, and what exactly they think they're doing. We didn't see them before their daughter got lost in The Blair Witch Project and now they've only gone and let their son James wander off in search of his sister 20 years later. Surely one of the parents might have advised against this madness.
And so Blair Witch begins with director Adam Wingard (The Guest, You’re Next) taking us back into the haunted woods of Burkitsville as another group of camera-carrying crazies go in search of the elusive Elly Kedward. This time there’s six doomed younglings; James Donahue was four when Heather disappeared, Lisa wants to make a documentary on James’ ill-advised search for his missing sister, and their friends Peter and Ashley are just along for moral support (and to handily up the body count and prove that in horror, black guys are still first on the kill list). The four friends are then joined by oddballs Lane (darknet666) and Talia who uploaded footage to YouTube that they claim to have found on a tape in the woods. The shaky camera video appears to show a female figure in a house just like the one at the end of Heather’s original project. Is Heather still alive after all these years, or is the Blair Witch up to her old tricks again?
No points if you guess the answer, but prepare for another bumpy ride on you’re way to the climax. Blair Witch ditches much of the ambiguity of the original film. There’s no room for any real debate over what exactly happens to this bunch of terrified youths. Anyone still fuming that they sat through The Blair Witch Project and never got a single shot of the Blair Witch can rest assured that there is definitely something to see here. Thankfully, not too much though. Wingard is smart enough to know a little goes a long way and milks the most suspense possible from his characters’ shaky cameras and inability to confront the Blair Witch face to face. The sound design is also racked up a notch, sometimes a little too much as it sounds like the black smoke monster from Lost might have found its way into the woods of Maryland.
Though the Donahue kids’ parents could have done much more to stop at least their second child from heading into the woods, at least James and his buddies are much more prepared for their camping trip than Heather, Mike and Josh were back in 1994. This new crop of tech-savvy millenials have Walkie-talkies, GPS, wearable cameras, a drone camera, lots of lights, food and just more cameras than you can shake a spooky stick-man at. Unfortunately, they obviously didn't watch that footage filmed by Heather and Josh carefully enough as they don't seem to realise that it's all bloody useless when faced with the power of the Blair Witch.
And if you thought she was too passive in the original, or maybe you don't believe that there was a curse and that everything can be explained rationally in the footage from Heather’s project, prepare to think again. In Blair Witch, the late Elly Kedward really unleashes her powers. She messes with their technology, messes with time and space, magics that old house from out of nowhere again and even throws in a few new tricks that are best left unspoiled. Wingard leaves you in no doubt that the Blair Witch exists and she's pretty much as terrifying as she ever was.
Fans of the original have to endure a little catch-up exposition to fill newcomers in on the legend of the Blair Witch, but at least a little more is added to the mythology. Rustin Parr’s house is also expanded with previously unseen elements providing one particularly claustrophobic moment. However, it's what goes down in the house that really gives the sweat glands a workout as familiar beats (people standing in corners, apologies, unseen attackers) get new and thrilling updates.
For those sick to death of found footage films, this offers little to win you over. There’s more cameras and camera technology so a slightly more varied visual experience than many other similar films. And the old charge of ‘why would they still be filming in this situation?’ is at least partially answered by having the characters wear their cameras on their head requiring them to not have to think about filming when the shit really hits the fan in the final act. These cameras also provide Peep Show style interactions as the characters talk to each other but gaze directly into the cameras. This pays dividends when two characters can only see each other's torch-lit faces while the space behind them remains in total, terrifying darkness.
So Blair Witch is scary, but it's not as ingenious and won't be as influential as the original. It's mostly a shame that Wingard didn't use the ‘method directing’ tactics of original directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. Clearly some of the scenes were unpleasant to film, but the actors in this film got off lucky. Though there is less ambiguity in Blair Witch, there’s a higher body count and more hysteria to make up for it. It's just a shame that there isn't anything as iconic, moving and ‘real’ as Heather’s final apology in the project that started it all. Still, Blair Witch fans won't be disappointed and newbies will learn that the woods of Burkitsville can be scarier than Crystal Lake, Elm Street and Haddonfield put together. Go back to bed Paranormal Activity, the Blair Witch is back with a vengeance and as terrifying as ever.
Here's the trailer:
More on Blair Witch and the original: