The film's production was kept in a death-grip of secrecy, with false trailers and titles swirling. Nobody knew a new film was even being made. And upon release in the festival circuit, it seemed like audiences finally got a winning follow-up. Word-of-mouth was fantastic, with many horror publications boasting of strong feedback while giving the films high marks in their own reviews. And then it was released to the public... and it crashed and burned. The response was pure venom and bile. Audiences hated it. Critics crucified it. And it looked like another dud for the franchise.
But was it really that bad?
I don't think so at all.
Yes, it's one of those wonderful times where I get to play the contrarian card, because sue me... I really enjoyed "Blair Witch," and to me... this was the sequel I was looking for all these years.
In 2014, James Donahue, brother of original "Blair Witch Project" director Heather, discovers a YouTube video purportedly taken in the same mysterious house where his sister vanished twenty years ago. Footage that appears to show a woman fleeing from mysterious, seemingly supernatural forces. Still haunted by Heather's disappearance, James assembles a group of friends and sets off into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland, to see if he can find any trace of what happened to her...
The great joy of "Blair Witch" lies in how obviously it is a loving tribute to that outstanding first film, though updated and appropriately amped up for modern tastes. It's what the first film was, only bigger, zanier and crazier... and arguably all the more "fun" for it. Albeit fun in the sort-of way where you find yourself giggling madly in anticipation of the next big jump or set-piece. It's a roller-coaster of a follow-up that still feels true to its more humble origins thanks to its callbacks, format and keen use of atmosphere, while adding in new twists and turns to keep the material fresh.
The general malign directed towards the film often lays in people feeling that in some way it fundamentally went against what worked so well about the original. It wasn't as subtle. It's not quite as clever. It showed too much. And yes, that is true. But I'd argue that given the passage of time and the intimate knowledge that people have regarding what came before... it's better for this film to do those things that drive the hardcore fans crazy. It's better for it to be blatant. It's better for it to be more "wild" and less "frightening." It's better for it to be over-zealous. Because that's what we'd least suspect. That's what would get us.
We've seen "The Blair Witch Project." We know why it works. We know that the philosophy of "less is more" is what made it a classic. So why would we want to see those same ideas watered down and repackaged? I know how scary it was seeing that original film in 1999 to simply hear Heather screaming "What is that?!" while running through the woods. This time... I wanted to see more. I wanted to see a film that threw its hands up, said "Screw it, we're gonna have fun with this mythology!" and actually started to give us demented glimpses of what had only been hinted at before. And I got what I wanted.
This is a film that needed to be silly and psychotic... and even a bit messy to work.
Director Wingard relishes in the atmosphere of the film in the best of ways. This is a stunningly well-choreographed film, from the stellar photography down to some of the most breathtaking sound design I've heard in recent memory. The film really does have impact, and though the scares are oft-cheap, they always feel earned. And I just loved how Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have embellished on what came before. There's some great twists and turns along the journey, and new ideas introduced, such as the Witch's ability to seemingly and permanently extend the night, add a lot to the proceedings.
I was also taken with the cast. Stars James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry are all very likable and fun, albeit in somewhat more trope-infused, archetypal roles. McCube and Hernandez have good chemistry and play well off one-another as what are essentially our two leads, while Robinson and Curry are just a blast and a half as geeky dweebs who are a little too obsessed with the Blair Witch legend. They add a cheekiness to the film that I very much liked. Almost like some of the obsessive real-life fans of the original film somehow ended up in the sequel. And though their roles are less defined, Scott and Reid ground the film as a couple of skeptic friends who are along for the ride.
It really comes down to this. If you are looking for the original film again, you won't find that here. "Blair Witch" is an attempt to re-invigorate a franchise, while doing whatever it can to spook you at every opportunity. And if, like me, you're open to seeing a silly roller-coaster of a sequel, then check it out. It's not a great film. But it is great entertainment. And I'm giving it an 8 out of 10.