When Adam Wingard’s new film The Woods turned out to be his sequel/remake to The Blair Witch Project, there was a collective surge of energy for the horror genre. Perhaps, fans thought, Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett can really do something with this franchise besides, you know, The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows. That was the hopeful best-case scenario, where two horror starlets came together to revitalize one of the first and best found-footage movies. But watching the trailers for Blair Witch, one couldn’t help but wonder if Wingard and Barrett were actually making a sequel or if they were simply riding the coattails of what made Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s film so mesmerizing to begin with. The results are in, and they’re disappointing.
Twenty years after the release of the original Blair Witch Project, Wingard and Barrett return to the woods of Burkittsville with a new group of curious campers ready to uncover the legend of the Blair Witch and Rustin Parr, and, by all estimations, go through exactly the same ordeal that the previous characters experienced in the first go-around. Barrett’s script follows James (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather Donahue from the first film, after he receives a cryptic video that seems to show footage of his sister still alive in the Burkittsville woods. He’s accompanied by his best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), along with the group documentarian Lisa (Callie Hernandez) – because of course someone’s got to shoot it for their “school project,” whatever that may be.
And so our four friends go on their sojourn, explaining small portions of the original Blair Witch Project along the way while drinking in bars, talking about how much James needs closure, and hinting at a budding relationship between James and Lisa. Along the way, they meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the two kids who originally found Heather’s lost tape. The cycle begins again, and the Blair Witch strikes.
There are two huge, paradoxical issues with Wingard’s direction, but both of them show the inherent issues with tackling a sequel-remake to a film which managed big scares early in its career based on smart marketing and a dedication to making people feel like what they were watching really occurred. Wingard’s odes to the original film often lack the tension and surprise that made them scary in the first place; his use of scenes that are nearly identical do Blair Witch no favors simply because any knowledgeable audience member expects these occurrences. The placement of rock symbols, the expanse of hastily assembled stick figures, the circular route of the characters as they lose their way despite compass (or, in this case, GPS) is all here, nearly shot-for-shot, but Wingard’s version misses the suspense and the seemingly real reactions from the group. The nicer cameras and the drone shots may be more realistic to today’s standards of filmmaking, but they also sap the realism from the moment.
At the same time, though, Wingard’s and Barrett’s new ideas are often completely at odds with The Blair Witch Project‘s subtle, brooding tension. There’s an infusion of gore here that not only has little bearing on the rest of the plot but also adds unnecessary viscera to a film that should instead be going for more minimal fear. Likewise, there is a seemingly never-ending supply of jump scares, facilitated by the characters’ headpiece cameras; quick turns reveal someone who runs into the camera with loud shrieks, and these become so commonplace that even Lisa remarks, “Will everyone stop doing that?” Here, finally, the audience nods in assent: please stop relying on the laziest methods to scare viewers.
More than that, though, is Wingard’s portrayal of the Blair Witch herself. Unfortunately, the movie opts to give viewers slight sightings of the creature, which looks more like Slender Man than anything else. This reviewer is truly confused as to why the film so often treats the Blair Witch like Sasquatch rampaging through the woods, complete with loud growls and the ability to uproot trees like she’s fifteen feet tall. Again, the subtlety of the original is replaced with something far worse than “boring” – it’s too often just plain silly.
It doesn’t help that, from the start, Blair Witch has a near nonsensical plot setup about years of grief and nonacceptance where James, given one inclination that his sister may still be alive in the woods all this time, uproots his entire life – and his friends’ – to go rummaging around in some forest. It’s true that family members living without closure sometimes latch onto impossible ideas, and it would make more sense if James simply believed that Heather was still alive. But not in those woods, and certainly not in the house that appears at the end of the film during a freak thunderstorm.
There are some tense scenes, there are some scares – more of the “here’s a piercing loud noise for your ears” approach than real terror – but for the most part, Wingard’s film is so often mediocre that most viewers will simply want to shut it off and head back to the original. In a way, this is worse than Book of Shadows, which at least attempted to do its own thing; this is a piggybacking on The Blair Witch Project‘s ideas, trying to outdo it with better technology and some weird reference to time travel where the group sees their own video prompting them to go to Burkittsville that’s never explained. There’s a reason Sanchez and Myrick never wanted to go back to the woods: you’re just going to get lost and keep backtracking.