Greenberg at Green Hills: The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Blair Witch (2016)

Throughout most of my youth, I was involved in the Boy Scouts, and during the school year, our troop would go on camping trips at least once a month. During the day, we would hike, canoe, and explore the outdoors. It could get fairly chilly in the Florida winter, so at night we would set campfires, and head off into the forests to collect firewood. During these trips there would be times – not that many, few and far between – where you might find yourself alone in the woods after dark. Just a few yards away from our campsite would be enough for the imagination to take over, for the mind to start racing. Each silhouette of an oak tree had something hiding behind it, each cracking branch could be, well, anything at all.

That feeling you get when you stare too long into the darkness and think you saw something, that sense of dread that begins to fill the pit of your stomach, the monsters that live out of the corners of your eyes, that’s what the Blair Witch movies turn up to 11 when they’re doing everything right. This week I had the chance to watch the original 1999 film before heading to the theater for the sequel. Here’s what I thought.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

If we were on campus in 1999, we might have seen a poster on the Rand bulletin board with the faces of three hikers about our age who had gone missing in the forests near Burkittsville, Maryland. Apparently, they had been filming a documentary called The Blair Witch Project about a local urban legend. Their camera equipment had just been found, but the kids had yet to be seen. This genius viral marketing campaign, combined with then-novel found footage style filmmaking, made The Blair Witch Project a unique entry into the horror genre.

Unfortunately, the original film doesn’t seem to hold up too well. The Blair Witch Project is wholly a product from the ‘90s, from the flannel shirts to the grainy video reels, and when a film’s frights are based on the unsettling question of its reality and the mythology woven by its background material, each year that goes by is like a radioactive half-life for the scare factor. At this point we’re left with a clever bit of filmmaking that leaves the viewer at best unsettled, and at worst bored.

Blair Witch (2016)

This brings me to Blair Witch, a sequel to the original film updated for modern audiences. James (James Allen McCune), whose sister Heather vanished in the woods back in the 1990s, goes off looking for her after a grainy video purporting to show footage of a house in the woods is posted onto YouTube by a local resident of Burkittsville. His friends decide to go looking for her, and one of them, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), decides to make their search the subject of a documentary for her film class. We can see where this is going.

The first thing viewers should realize about Blair Witch is that, while it’s a sequel, its plot is extremely familiar for those who have seen the first movie. There are some interesting new twists in this one, like high definition body cameras, night-vision tripods, and drone footage that give us new points of view and breathe new life into the found footage genre. We also get some new insight into the lore of the Blair Witch which fleshes out the sequel as well as some plot holes from the original film.

While most of the cast does a fine enough job screaming at shadows and sounds in the woods, I particularly enjoyed Wes Robinson’s performance as Lane, a Burkittsville local who doesn’t join the rest of the group in sleeping through the night and begins to experience time differently. Every moment he was on screen I felt even tenser than when the Blair Witch made an appearance, because the terror he experiences, like the terror the viewer experiences, is largely psychological.

As I said before, that psychological terror – the fear of what could be out there but is never seen – is what makes this movie and its predecessor unique among horror films. Unfortunately, Blair Witch tries to do too much by combining these franchise-defining elements with traditional horror movie clichés. What we wind up with is psychological horror that creeped me out but didn’t go as far as to scare me in the traditional sense. Considering all the hype around this franchise, I felt like I deserved to be terrorized. Instead, jump scares and monsters fill in the gaps and pull Blair Witch down into mediocrity.

But perhaps the biggest weakness of Blair Witch is its predictability. For a franchise that molded and inspired the horror genre, the plot elements of Blair Witch at times followed so closely to the original film that I’d feel comfortable calling the movie hackneyed. It’s a shame, really, because as is the case with many films, you can see the makings of something great just under the surface. Blair Witch wasn’t all it could be, but it did make me take a second look over my shoulder when I walked to the parking lot from the theater, and that’s something, isn’t it?

Verdict: The anchor’s up on this one. If you close your eyes and back away from the theater slowly, rumor has it the Blair Witch won’t be able to hurt you. Even if she does, at least you know you’ll have saved ten dollars.

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