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Movie Review: Blair Witch

blair witch poster

@theevilbread reviews...
It's very weird to even begin writing this review, I've said it a hundred times before and I'll probably say it a hundred times more, 'The Blair Witch Project' is by far the scariest and most effective horror film I've ever seen in terms of causing anxiety and fright. I can confidently say that I will never go camping in the woods and after seeing the sixteen year in the making sequel, Blair Witch, I'm moving to Outpost 31 where there is ZERO chance that Elly Kedward can even blow a leaf in my general direction. So finally, one of the questionable decisions that 2016 has decided to give us is Blair Witch.

Distributed by Lionsgate now who acquired Artisan Entertainment in 2003 (including all its properties), they are no strangers to horror franchises, giving us Saw, Hostel, The Cabin In The Woods, You're Next and many more since their acquisitions, they certainly showcase an impressive catalogue. Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, they again team up coming from their other positive works; You're Next and The Guest.

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Obviously, doing an advertising campaign that would rival or surpass that of The Blair Witch Project in a contemporary period is flat out impossible. When the original film came out, the internet was in its infancy, you weren't able to debunk something with a quick Google search, as far as many, many people were concerned (and some still were up until recently, I had to tell one of my work colleagues the other week that it was fabricated), the events involving the three student filmmakers were very real and very frightening. Obviously viral marketing has become quite a staple with big cinema releases and the demographic audience gets very involved and excited over the use of it.

The big surprise was that this film was originally marketed as The Woods, even then however a lot of eagle eyed fans noticed similarities and were expecting a spiritual successor to the franchise. The bomb shell was dropped as San Diego Comic Con 2016, just two months prior to release that this was a continuation of the Blair Witch franchise, to everyone's shock and excitement of positive first screenings. There was also an augmented reality campaign hosted online surrounding the events of the 2016 sequel which involved social media accounts, Kickstarter pages, blog posts, etc. What you'd really come to expect these days, however, I have to admit I really miss the effort put into the original films' advertising campaign where we got several documentaries, crime scene photos, forensic evidence, books, etc. It was still very, very impressive to this date and I still consider it the greatest advertising campaign of all time.

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Blair Witch opens up with a title card mirroring the iconic one that appearing in The Blair Witch Project, we are advised that various memory cards and filming equipment were found in the outskirts of the Black Hills forest in 2014, the following film is an edited narrative of that footage. James Donahue (James Allen McCune) is brought to the attention of footage just recently found in the Black Hills forest by a YouTube account user by the name of 'DarkNet666'. James believes this to be footage of his long missing sister who disappeared twenty years prior in 1994, proving she's still alive or there is still some evidence that law enforcement missed out on. Yes, this is a direct follow-up to 'The Blair Witch Project' and the film doesn't exactly tiptoe around this, there are a lot of mirrored themes, imagery and elements featured throughout the course of the film. James intends to set off back into those woods in Burkittsville, Maryland to get some closure about the whole situation. Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez), one of James' friends figures this is a great idea for her student filmmaking documentary project, enlisted with the help of modern technology (including a drone) and two other friends, Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott), the group set out to the Black Hills forest to see what they can find. They are soon joined by 'DarkNet666' who is revealed to be a joint account hosted by Burkittsville locals, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) who want to find out some answers about the Blair Witch legend themselves. Of course, as soon as they enter the woods, it all goes horribly wrong. Much like the first film, they start to notice strange occurrences such as noises in the distance at night, their GPS' leading them around in circles and of course, dozens of figures made of sticks hanging outside of their tent. It isn't long before Elly makes herself known to the group, we only got a taste of what she is capable of in 'The Blair Witch Project' because she is really, really pissed off this time and has no problems letting the group know about it.

One of the aspects I was very excited to revisit and wasn't disappointed about was exploring the mythology behind the Blair Witch once again, those were some of the most interesting moments in the original film, hell, the series in general. I don't think there are many franchises with so few many mainstream entries but a lore that spans centuries and centuries of detail. Some exposition is required as obviously there are newbies to the series and those who haven't caught up again with the mythology so we cover some familiar ground, however, there is new lore added to the plot which links back to the original film and helps to explain some of the events that took place.

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There's a reason why a mirror is the focal point of the very beginning of the film, mirroring imagery to the lore and 'The Blair Witch Project' is absolutely vital. It doesn't necessarily have to be in your face either, simple little nods such as the crew drinking in a motel before they head out camping, knocking over a pile of rocks, referencing what happened to Eileen Treacle, etc. If you know your Blair Witch lore, there is so much for you to catch out here, I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those films where you can watch it multiple times and catch something new with each viewing. The sound design, like that of the original film, is phenomenal. The credit theme of the original film alone still sends shivers down my spine and although there isn't quite the subtlety of the original films sound design, this film is very loud and showcases the extent of the witches’ powers, she was just playing with Heather and her crew, this time she is out for blood. It feels like the vibration in the cinema is an extension of the witches’ power, managing to even break the fourth wall.

By far the best thing about the entire film and a lot of reviews have mentioned this, is the final act, probably about the last 20-25 minutes of the film. It's absolute insanity and some of the most tense and frightening found-footage horror ever. Remember the final few moments of the original film that took place inside the almost phantom-like Rustin Parr house that seemed to materialise out of nowhere? Well, not to spoil anything but imagine that for a full good third of the film. There have only been three scenes in all of cinema that have nearly made me have an anxiety attack, without spoiling, the other two are in The Descent and 10 Cloverfield Lane, one is in Blair Witch.

Now, that all being said, there are some problems that I have with the film and unfortunately a number of them have to do with the state of modern horror films which Blair Witch tries to follow. Now, we all know that The Blair Witch Project is renowned for its slow burn over a long period of time, from what we understand, the three student filmmakers were in the Black Hills forest for a number of days, over a week if I remember correctly and each night things would slowly start to escalate more and more. Unfortunately, in Blair Witch this isn't the case, it pretty much goes from zero to one hundred in an instant, there's none of the dread of the incoming nightfall the original masterfully gave us because as you'll find out, a majority of the film takes place in the night time. More day horror would've been much appreciated, that scene where Heather, Josh and Mike come across the stickmen is still so unsettling to this day.

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Jump scares. It's ALWAYS jump scares. I don't know how many times we have to say to studios that they are NOT scary or fun and sadly, Blair Witch is loaded with them. If The Blair Witch Project was a slow burning forest fire with its approach to scares then Blair Witch is a full on erupting volcano through a SnapChat filter. I totally understand jump scares from a marketing point and they should absolutely be used in some short marketing material to sell the film but a scary film does not make if it's just a bunch of people jumping back and forth between handheld cameras. As for the characters themselves, I feel like there are way too many of them, at least what they do with the amount that is. We had enough characters for a full on Coffin Rock recreation but the film doesn't even explore that as a possibility. This results in one dimensional characters, perhaps excluding our two leads James and Lisa who get some more motivation and screen time. It's worth noting that Callie Hernandez is fantastic in the film, real final girl material and she has an amazing set of screaming lungs on her, it'll be very interesting to see any future horror projects she has upcoming (I noticed Alien: Covenant is one so that's exciting!).

It seems unfair to not judge Blair Witch as its own film but it's nearly impossible to not compare it with The Blair Witch Project, the disappointing aspect is that it's a totally different film in tone and approach compared to its predecessor. I think that the change in horror over the last two decades is perfectly shown by these two films, whereas The Blair Witch Project was a nightmarish suspenseful slow burn, Blair Witch, while still effective and scary in parts, is very loud and in your face, the film could've benefited so much if they had just let the events take place naturally rather than hit the fast forward button. The Blair Witch Project feels like a nightmare and Blair Witch just feels like a Hollywood horror film, there's nothing particularly innovative outside of adding further to the lore of the Blair Witch herself. I feel like the film would've much more benefitted being in place of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, it feels like a sequel far too late for anyone outside of the fan base to really care anymore. If you like the original film, the sequel is a lot more of the same, to the point where it could be considered a pseudo-reboot/remake, if you didn't like the aspects of its predecessor, you won't like this film. Granted, some questions are answered and even more questions are presented to us, I would love to visit again and again to find out what the hell is going on in Burkittsville.

That being said, I did really, really enjoy Blair Witch and you can tell there is a lot of love for the fans that has gone into this long overdue sequel and I'm thankful we actually got it, for so many years rumours of a third film have came and went, it's quite surreal that we finally got here in the end and like the Black Hills forest, I hope it shows no signs of ending.

Jozef Hamilton

Twitter: @theevilbread

Images: IMDb

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