'Blair Witch': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Don't expect any surprises.

James Allen McCune and Callie Hernandez head a new troop of young people once more equipped with cameras, looking for trouble in the woods where the "Blair Witch" lives.

Getting in on the reboot racket, horror show Blair Witch relaunches the long-dormant brand, putting fresh blood in charge with director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett (collaborators on The Guest, You’re Next, V/H/S and V/H/S 2 and others) taking over the reins. However, by sticking so slavishly to the original Blair Witch film’s template, the result is a dull retread rather than a full-on reinvention, enlarging the cast numbers this time but sticking to the same basic beats.

With a marketplace already pretty crowded with found-footage horror, a genre The Blair Witch Project helped to invent, distributor Lionsgate seems to be working hard to exploit the brand with a striking campaign and festival exposure in Toronto.

Premiered at Sundance in 1999 and then successfully hyped by what they used to call back in those days “viral” marketing, writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project was a game-changer in so many ways. It’s not that any individual element was all that original. Mockumentary and found footage had been done before (see 1980's Cannibal Holocaust), and the art houses were awash at the time with semi-improvised films shot on handheld digital rigs, for example.

But the way Myrick and Sanchez brought all those zeitgeist-y elements together was clever, and moreover the way they dialed down the gore and dialed up the sense of inchoate, unnameable evil was especially effective. Plus, who didn’t long to see those cocky film-school brats get murdered in the woods?

Taking only two words from the original title, presumably to make it more tweet-friendly, 2016’s Blair Witch cleaves closely to the structure of the first film. (Storywise, there seems to be very little overlap with the poorly received official sequel from 2000, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.) Indeed, making protagonist James (James Allen McCune) the much younger brother of Heather (Heather Donahue), the ill-fated “director” of the first movie, emphasizes rather literally the family resemblance. So just like his big sis did nearly 20 years ago, James sets off for the woods near Burkittsville, Md. (actually British Columbia, making a poor substitute botanically), equipped with supportive friends, assorted recording equipment and camping gear and a lot of bad luck. He's determined to find some trace of his sister in the woods, having obsessed for years over the footage (i.e. the first movie) that surfaced in 1999.

Holding the camera for much of the time this go-round is James’ earnest girlfriend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), yet another film student, his childhood friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and Peter’s prissy squeeze Ashley (Corbin Reid). This clean-cut Scooby crew are equipped not just with conventional digital cameras and GPS-equipped phones, but also drones to give them aerial views of the woods, a gimmick that pays off in one of the film's better set-pieces later.

Expanding the cast even further, the quartet meet a scruffy local couple, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who are as obsessed with the Blair Witch legend as James. The encounter with them on the edge of town provides an opportunity to rehash the Blair Witch backstory (colonial-era witch hunts, possessed child abusers in the 20th century, yadda yadda). It also handily drums up a little tension between the middle-class, mixed-race college kids and white trash Lane and Talia, who resent the interlopers.  

That hint of class conflict at least adds a slightly new flavor that’s welcome, since once the kids get into the woods, it's from there on out a standard-issue rehash of the first film. Stuff goes bump in the night (the sound design is the one outstanding element), people go missing and a battalion of willow-twig stick figures get hung from the branches. It’s like a whole troop of Girl Scouts had dropped acid, turned Satanist and went nuts with the crafting table. Eventually, the surviving characters (disappointingly, the most obvious choices from the cast) find that spooky house with the handprints, and it’s time to face the wall. In every sense, storywise and on a more meta-level, it all goes round and round in circles.

Unfortunately, despite all the similarities to its predecessor, the most glaring missing element is that sense of spontaneity that made the first film so effective. Although once again the cast handles the cameras themselves, their patter with each other and to-camera reactions feel so much more rehearsed, self-conscious and staged. Maybe that’s a sign the cast is less competent or that director Wingard hasn’t got the same touch with actors. Or maybe it’s a very subtle, acute comment on how this millennial generation, with their selfie sticks and YouTube channels, are always camera-ready and self-aware. As with the first film, many will be secretly cheering as each one gets picked off by the witch.

Distributor: Lionsgate
Production companies: A Lionsgate presentation of a Lionsgate, Vertigo Entertainment, Room 101, Snoot Entertainment production

Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Valorie Curry, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriters: Simon Barrett
Producers: Roy Lee, Steven Schneider, Keith Calder, Jess Calder
Executive producers: Jenny Hinkey, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale
Director of photography: Robby Baumgartner
Production designer: Tom Hammock
Costume designer: Emily Batson
Editor: Louis Cioffi
Music: Adam Wingard
Visual effects supervisors: Takashi Takeoka, Matt Collorafice
Casting: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood

Rated R, 89 minutes