On witches, legacies, repetition, and the stagnation of found-footage horror
Blair Witch Lionsgate
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Simon Barrett
Starring: Callie Hernandez, James Allen McCune, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry
Rated R / 1 hour, 29 minutes / 1.85:1
September 16, 2016
(out of four)
There is a damning, self-evident truth about found-footage movies: Seventeen years later, they are still right where they started.
It's not just that Adam Wingard's Blair Witch (née The Woods) has revisited, or directly followed up on, the progenitor of the modern found-footage horror film, but that in doing so he's accidentally exposed that the whole format has gone almost nowhere in the nearly two decades since. There has been spectacularly little innovation with the technique since the original The Blair Witch Project unofficially established it*. Even the few that have used it effectively have done so, for the most part, with only small variations - the long, unbroken static shot in the second half of Willow Creek; the reliance on surveillance cameras in Europa Report; the physical inseparability of character and camera in Afflicted; the night-vision sequence in [REC] 2. (The best example might be Levan Gabriadze's Unfriended, which is so specific in its formal conceit that it's almost an offshoot of found footage rather than an example of the format itself.)
* Disclaimer, borne of my own insecurity: Yes, I'm aware of found-footage predecessors like Cannibal Holocaust and the like. I'm primarily talking about the format's more recent interpretation and its modern usage.
Blair Witch brings that stagnation into perfect focus. It more or less behaves the exact same way as the original film - just with higher production values - to the point of feeling like a step backward. Sometimes when you're simply running in place it begins to feel like you're losing ground. What Blair Witch tells us is that in the 17 years since this story was introduced to us, in the very specific fashion in which it was introduced, no one has come up with a single new idea about how to tell it. The film isn't inept or anything - indeed, there are sequences of fine horror craftwork - but its lack of identity is as glaring as its lack of novelty. It's not an homage, because - as, officially, a sequel - it's simply continuing the same story in the same style. So it's a continuation … except with all new characters and all new creators. It has all new characters and all new creators, and yet it doesn't bring anything new to the table. So … what is it? The answer that Wingard and writer/producer Simon Barrett wouldn't want to acknowledge is that it's a remake - in the same way that 2011's The Thing was a remake while pretending to be a prequel. Of course, good remakes always reinvent their material, and this one doesn't do that, either. In this way, it's very much of its time, in that its time is so defined by the way studios mine existing properties for new versions that are instantly forgotten. Toss this one in the dustbin with all the others.
The very fact that it is just a revisitation of an existing property (or "mythology," even) puts the onus squarely on the filmmaking to distinguish itself. That it doesn't - can't - not only renders Blair Witch irrelevant but indicts its entire cinematic technique, or subgenre, or whatever you want to call found footage. I struggle to think of any other format - or style, movement, genre, anything - being this creatively dormant, especially right at its inception, when there's usually so much innovation with a new approach because the language is wide open and unexplored. Even in horror, where trends and repetition are such a key to the business model, new forms and subgenres still tend to advance and transform and build upon each other's ideas. Consider how much the slasher movie changed between Psycho and Halloween (18 years) or between Halloween and Scream (again, 18 years). Yet in 17 years found-footage horror has yet to mature beyond its roots.
This film's protagonists are caught up in their own past as well, with James (James Allen McCune) still haunted by the disappearance of his sister Heather back in the first film. It's been 20 years, and though he barely seems old enough to even remember someone who's been gone that long, he has become obsessed with investigating the exact legend his sister fatefully went after. He brings along a few friends - Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott), as well as a pair of conspiracy theorists and de-facto tour guides (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) who claim to know the woods, and the legend of the Blair Witch, as well as anyone.
Off they go into the scary woods, equipped with cameras to record the whole thing (they're amateur filmmakers, you see). And as they get deeper and deeper, they increasingly lose track of time; days never seem to end, and the whole forest becomes an inescapable loop. (There's also an oddly out-of-place body-horror subplot involving an infection in one character's foot, which seems more like a leftover idea from an entirely different film that Wingard decided to shoehorn into this one.)
The film is at its most accomplished in the chaotic third act. Here we see, like the characters in the movie, Wingard and Barrett unearthing an older movie and trying to examine all the ways it struck their own imaginations once upon a time. They really blow out the final segment from the original, and display a sense of timing and imagery that suggests they'd do a really great job putting together a theme-park haunted house. For the first time all movie, it seems like there's a real reason we're all here. Then again, by the time the final key image is revealed, Wingard has gone a bit too far in what he's decided to show, removing some of the mystery that seems inherent to the whole exercise.
Still, at least that final third gives us something. The rest of Blair Witch indicates not myth or legacy or nostalgia or pastiche, but garden-variety arrested development. In returning to the same story that, for better or worse, kickstarted a whole sub-generation of horror, we see that it hasn't so much come full circle as remained exactly in place this whole time.