Thursday 22 September 2016

Blair Witch (US 2016: Dir Adam Wingard)

It's twenty years after the depicted events in 1999's The Blair Witch Project, where a group of filmmakers in search of the legendary Blair Witch went missing in the woods around Burkittsville, Maryland, with the recovery of footage of their exploits the only record of their expedition. James, the brother of Heather, one of the original group, is convinced via some more recently internet uploaded film that his sister may still be in the strange house in the woods which was the final filmed location of the original party. He assembles a new team to go back to Burkittsville, including the owner of the recent footage who knows the filming location, to track down his sister and solve the mystery of the Blair Witch.

One of the main problems with Adam (2011's You're Next, 2014's The Guest) Wingard's irritating and unnecessary film is that it fails both as a sequel and as a movie in its own right. As a follow up to the The Blair Witch Project, it asks the audience to believe that a seemingly sane man is convinced his own sister could survive for twenty years in a house which presumably was subject to a full police investigation after the first events. It also asks that audience to accept that none of the new group of 'Witch hunters' seems to know anything about the legend (in fact they seem pretty clueless all round) despite the notoriety of the events surrounding the original disappearances. Nothing new is added narratively, apart from stressing that 'bad things only happen after dark', and worse, the actions of our new party merely mirror the mistakes of the 1999 group - presumably they didn't study the footage that closely.

Wingard's decision to make the film entirely his own at just past the hour mark (shorthand for bonkers) would be more palatable if he had spent any of the previous sixty minutes investing his two dimensional cast with personalities or motive. As it is they're all scarcely more than cannon fodder being subjected to the director's final reel penchant for noisy abstraction. As the movie revs up for its last scenes when, as in the original film, the remaining cast find themselves in the house in the woods, Blair Witch becomes a shaky (as opposed to steadi) cam rattle around rooms and corridors more effectively and coherently rendered by Sam Raimi in The Evil Dead thirty five years previously. I realise that the point of the last part of the movie was to capture a real sense of disorientation and terror - I just would have liked it to have had more of, well, a point.

Perhaps the best use of Blair Witch is to act as one bookend showing how far the found footage genre has come (or more precisely the cul de sac in which it now finds itself), with the original movie as the other; Wingard has clearly drawn from his own segments in the first two V/H/S films as a template, glitches and everything, for his particular take. One could argue that the sense of naivety present in the original film limited its dramatic value, but it's the subtlety on display in The Blair Witch Project that keeps me coming back to it, year on year. As actor and musician Matt Berry rightly pointed out concerning the 1999 movie in a recent interview, the bizarre sounds generated by the 'witch' in the middle of the night, including the sound of children playing and the breaking of branches, heard by a terrified Josh, Heather and Mike, is a triumph of creepiness. Blair Witch offers the same - sometimes scene-for-scene - but louder, crasser and with more shouting and running. Oh and yes you do see it (fleetingly), which is a decision no more stupid than those in the rest of the film. 

A footnote: although Blair Witch takes great pains to convince us that we're back in the same actual Maryland woods as the first film (similar State locations were also used in the unfairly ill-regarded sequel, 2000's Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2), Wingard's follow-up was in fact shot in British Colombia, Canada. Wow, they really were lost.

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