Thursday, September 15, 2016

Blair Witch: Don’t Call It a Comeback, She Never Went Away

Even though Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez have yet to duplicate the box office magic of their breakout 1999 hit The Blair Witch Project, they still deserve stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. By launching the cheap-to-produce “found footage” sub-genre, they have enriched the industry’s coffers enormously. Unfortunately, they were not able to maintain the franchise as a going concern. As a result, the newest sequel-reboot has been transferred to the promising hands of screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, who duly take us back into Maryland’s Black Hills in Blair Witch (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Like everyone else, James Donahue has seen the video of his big sister Heather’s ill-fated documentary shoot, but the lack of absolute certainty regarding her fate still torments him. Finding another internet video apparently shot in that ominous abandoned house (the very same one search parties could never find), Donahue convinces his best bud Peter Jones and their girlfriends, Lisa Arlington and Ashley Bennett to accompany him on a fact-finding mission. Naturally, Arlington is also a film student, who is logically making a documentary on Donahue and his sister’s disappearance.

You can pretty much guess the rest. However, video technology has advanced quite a bit since 1999, so Arlington comes fully stocked with hand-helds, go-pros and even a drone-cam. Of course none of that matters when the witch’s curse kicks in. To Barrett’s credit, Donahue calls a retreat relatively early on, but it is already too late.

If you watched the 1999 Blair Witch and Barrett and Wingard’s revamp in isolation, you would most likely conclude the new film is far superior. However, anyone who has seen the original in its day as well as a fair smattering of horror films in the intervening years will find the spruced-up sequel to be highly derivative. (Of course, this does not take into account the disastrous sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Even your white-haired grandma who will never watch a horror movie knows it sucks.) Still, the greater visual clarity is a blessing. Also, when all Hell breaks loose in the third act, the film is considerably more intense than the original (which sort of collapses down the stretch).

Believe it or not, James Allen McCune shows presence and personality as Donahue. It is a decent performance by general standards and pretty darn impressive when judged against the baseline of found footage horror. Callie Hernandez has a few moments as Arlington, but the other members of the horrible no-good camping trip are either blandly forgettable or slightly annoying, at best.

The mechanics of this Blair Witch are generally solid, but like Nathan Ambrosioni’s Therapy it makes no attempt to explain how the disparate footage (including digital and analog formats) was spliced together into a sequential narrative. Regular horror patrons have seen worse. In truth, it works on a basic visceral level, but anyone who knows the genre will expect more from Wingard and Barrett (the team responsible for You’re Next and segments in the first two V/H/S films). While we keep hoping they will take found footage to an insane new level, they never do. Mainly for hardcore fans of the franchise mythos, Blair Witch opens nationwide tomorrow (9/16), including the AMC Empire in New York.