It’s a common joke among horror fans that horror characters live in an alternate universe where horror movies don’t exist. While some iconic characters like Scream’s Sidney Prescott know what genre they’re trying to survive (and often trying to manipulate), the vast pantheon of horror movie characters exhibit a notorious degree of genre blindness: They can’t see the wall or the writing on it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Actors Heather Donahue, Mike Williams, and Josh Leonard march into the woods with the naive hubris of an entire pre-9/11 generation, confident that they can’t stray too far from safety or civilization. Heather continually Hermione Grangers her hapless friends deeper into the woods outside the small town of Burkittsville, Maryland, searching for answers to the folkloric mysteries of the Blair Witch and the history of shocking murders and disappearances that plague the woods she’s said to inhabit.
Heather’s determined refusal to turn off the camera means that their subsequent psychological and spiritual collapse beneath the witch’s vengeance is spectacularly captured on film. The story is no less terrifying because we know it well: They can’t see the handprints on the wall until it’s too late.
The protagonists of Blair Witch, in theaters this weekend, should know what awaits them in the woods. But director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, the creative team behind the Project’s latest sequel, have done their best to keep their characters ignorant.
Blair Witch’s main character is the brother of Blair Witch Project’s Heather, which ties him directly to the events of The Blair Witch Project. Thus, he lives in a world where horror movies — like the one in which his sister unwittingly appeared— are real, but he continually acts like he doesn’t. The result is a frustrating lack of narrative cohesion that relies too heavily on tropes the original Blair Witch Project codified.
This inconsistency, combined with lackluster acting, a confused narrative, and formulaic plot beats, results in a movie that contributes nothing new to either the Blair Witch mythos or the vast landscape of found-footage horror.
Blair Witch’s characters are vapid and inconsistent
Blair Witch gives us a new set of characters with a strong link to the original film. Heather’s younger brother James (James McCune) was 4 when she died and is now determined to find answers to her death by repeating her trek into the woods. His search — conducted with laconic aplomb by an utterly uninterested McCune — drives Blair Witch’s flimsy excuse for a plot.
We know James is obsessed with finding Heather, still alive, after 20 years because the script tells us so repeatedly. Yet James also seems to take no awareness of the events his sister experienced into the woods with him. Even if we assume that the previous Blair Witch sequel, Book of Shadows, never existed in this universe, it makes no sense for an obsessed family member to be so ignorant of Heather’s final footage that he calmly repeats all her mistakes.
The group of friends who venture into the woods with James have no personalities to speak of and mostly serve to be quickly dispatched. (We care about them even less than James does.) A pair of locals get kicked out of the group after faking the famous Blair Witch stick signs; another character is immediately down for the count after encountering a weird, possibly alien parasite whose connection to the witch is never explained.
The tension and character interplay that defined the original film is nowhere in sight here: Characters have no memorable traits, and there’s no particular significance to any of their interactions. The ostensible forest guide, Lane (Wes Robinson), issues haphazard and useless warnings that the witch is a take-no-prisoners kind of gal, but these make no sense given that he’s entered the woods himself.
Wingard and Barrett seem to have left their usual ability to make us love and root for characters back at the roadside. These people are all too much nothing to even inspire feelings of annoyance that they’re carrying us down the most clichéd horror path known to man.
Of course, we owe that cliché-strewn path to the Blair Witch to begin with.
The Blair Witch Project established the found-footage formula
The Blair Witch Project is one of the most influential horror films ever made. Its story and iconic scenes have been parodied, homaged, and ripped off endlessly over the years. Filmed on a shoestring budget, it remains one of the most profitable films of all time, and directly influenced the film that currently holds that record, Paranormal Activity. It’s also the gold standard for successful viral marketing — so successful that many people still don’t realize the film isn’t actually based on a true story.
The on-camera trio’s footage, famously "recovered" after their fictional disappearance, unlocked what was more or less a new horror subgenre: found footage. Found footage blew up the barriers to filmmaking: After Blair Witch Project, all you needed to make a movie was a group of actors, a camera or two, and a scary forest.
As a result, for the past two decades, the horror industry has been inundated with new and indie filmmakers turning in entries to the found footage genre. Most of these films follow the Blair Witch Project formula to the letter: Go into the woods (or the asylum, or the derelict hotel, or the abandoned cave), get lost, get scared, get separated, and film everything until the very end.
When the found-footage genre works, it works because the camera shows us just enough to give us a taste of the terror offscreen, without succumbing to the same plot beats as every other found-footage film that’s come before it.
Good found-footage horror also makes us believe in its characters. The reason we could watch Heather, Josh, and Mike go through the "lost in the woods" formula without wanting to claw our eyes out is that we cared about them. The mystery of the Blair Witch was new and intriguing, and whether you loved Heather or hated her, her personality proved the perfect foil for the witch’s relentless cruelty.
Blair Witch has neither the smart pacing nor the emotional elements of its predecessor. And while they may be related, there’s nothing of Heather in James. That’s Blair Witch’s first, worst mistake.
Blair Witch focuses on the found-footage formula, rather than the emotions that make the formula work
Wingard and Barrett should know the found-footage genre’s pitfalls better than most. Their previous film collaborations, You’re Next and The Guest, both electrified and subverted their respective horror subgenres. (You’re Next is a tongue-in-cheek home invasion riff, while The Guest is a wacky John Carpenter-esque psychological thriller turned slasher.) Instead, the Blair Witch creators seem unable to break away from the "lather, rinse, succumb to your demise" formula that the original film orchestrated so brilliantly.
In attempting to stick to the traits that made the original film succeed, Blair Witch gets stuck on the mechanics of the found-footage formula, and loses sight of the narrative vision that made the original film work. (Insert forest/trees metaphor here.)
Wingard attempts to replicate the original film’s use of suggestion with copious use of sound, but most of these effects are superimposed onto the environment, often coming from muffled camera microphones or deliberately inserted audio glitches. They add nothing to the atmospheric terror of the woods, and instead feel loud, cheap, and unearned.
"Cheap and unearned" is a good descriptor for most things in Blair Witch, from the jump scares to the superficial gestures of friendship to the many repetitive sequences where characters walk around the woods screaming each other’s names in the dark. Minor nods to The Descent and the horror manga of Junji Ito serve the film well, but just like everything else in the film, they go nowhere.
Blair Witch also fails to solve for found footage’s most basic obstacle: providing a reason for people to keep filming in the most harrowing circumstances. Our heroes have flashlights, so they don’t have to use the camera lights; they have multiple cameras, so there’s no need for everyone to film everything all the time. Yet we’re stuck with characters inexplicably toting their cameras high even as they walk, or crawl, into the most absurd situations.
Blair Witch is lost in a forest of missed opportunities
Again and again, characters encounter obvious signs that they’re repeating the journey of their predecessors, without any of them seeming aware of it. James seems placidly content to stroll around in the woods with his increasingly frightened companions, doing nothing to warn them or prepare them for their fates. (I’m already writing the fan theory where James is a secret sociopath.)
The shiny drone the characters bring with them into the woods initially seems like a simple, clever way to revitalize the franchise. Imagine: The drone could meet something unthinkable in the sky or the treetops, or maybe just torment us with what’s off camera, the way Paranormal Activity 3 achieved real suspense just by putting a camcorder on an oscillating fan. But the drone is completely wasted as a cinematic device; it reveals nothing, is quickly felled without so much as a scary cackle, and adds zilch to the plot.
The drone’s anticlimactic fate is a microcosm of this entire film. Characters go nowhere, emotionally or physically — in stark contrast to the original Blair Witch Project, which rapidly evolves its characters even as it runs them in circles. In Blair Witch, things happen and mean nothing; new insight into the Blair Witch mythos is occasionally hinted at but then dropped. At several points, the film attempts to imply that the woods are controlled by strange time loops and/or something extraterrestrial, but neither of these narrative threads cohere or go anywhere interesting.
The effects of this disjointed narrative are most keenly felt when it comes to the Blair Witch herself and the house she lives in. At a glance, she’s a formidable monster, heavily inspired by Goya’s monstrous Saturn, but we have no idea what she really wants. The film manages to transform her house, the heart-stopping center of the horror in its predecessor, into a bland backwoods maze with nothing particularly scary lurking in any of its corners. Compared with the utterly demented house at the center of currently playing horror adrenaline fest Don’t Breathe, this is especially disappointing.
Ultimately, the real curse of Blair Witch is that it’s trapped by its own found-footage legacy. So far, none of its descendants have found their way out of the woods of its own creation.