Thursday, 22 September 2016


I don't think it's hyperbole to say this, but the most influential horror film of the last 20 years is probably The Blair Witch Project.
Sure, horror fans are often quick to point out predecessors (such as 1998's The Last Broadcast and, especially, Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust) but it was Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's 1999 sleeper hit that truly ushered in the Found Footage phenomenon. Of course, that could be enough to have some genre fans cursing the flick, but I think it's pretty safe to say that without The Blair Witch Project there would have been no REC, no Cloverfield, no V/H/S and (of course) no Paranormal Activity franchise.
But it wasn't just the filming style that makes the movie so influential. It was also one of the very first to use the internet and viral marketing to create a buzz. It came with a web site that presented the events of the movie as fact, as well as expanding upon the elaborate backstory and lore that made it so rewarding. This kind of marketing is ten-a-penny today, but back in 1999 this was truly groundbreaking.
And finally, how can we ignore its astonishing commercial success? Made at a cost of just $60,000, The Blair Witch Project went on to gross $248,639,000 worldwide. In short, it was a phenomenon.
The studio was quick to follow up this success, hastily pumping out sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Sadly this underwhelming effort was critically panned and so ended the story of one of the most successful genre movies ever.
Or so we thought.
Fast-forward to July 2016 and the world was shocked to discover that Adam Wingard's The Woods was actually titled Blair Witch and would be a long awaited 'proper' sequel to the 1999 movie.
With the hype machine in full force, is this Blair Witch good enough to cast a spell over modern audiences?
Or is it lost in the woods?
Read on...


Dir: Adam Wingard

Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk.

After a YouTube video surfaces, pertaining to the disappearance of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams 17 years ago, Heather's (much) younger brother James (McCune) decides to head into the Black Hills Forest to investigate his sister's fate. He is joined by love interest Lisa (Hernandez), a media student who wants to document James' trip as part of her thesis, plus long-term friends (and couple) Peter (Scott) and Ashley (Reid). To document the occasion the group assemble a far more high-tech array of gadgets than their ill-fated predecessors, including GPS, ear-piece cams and even a flying drone camera for sweeping aerial shots.
When the group reaches Burkittsville to discuss the tape with the YouTube user who discovered it, Lane (Robinson), and his girlfriend Talia (Curry), the local Blair Witch enthusiasts agree to show James and company where they discovered the footage with one proviso — that they be allowed to accompany the group into the woods.
Despite some initial misgivings about heading into the middle of nowhere with two obvious oddballs, the group feel they have no choice and acquiesce.
The following day the youngsters hike into the woodland to a warped, lightning-struck tree under which Lane discovered the enigmatic footage. However, a bare-foot river crossing causes a minor but still gruesome injury to one of their number. As the group camp for the night they are plagued by unexplained, disturbing occurrences before internal tensions boil over the following day.
However, as tough as things have been until now, events soon become far, far worse.
Lost, scared and pursued through the forest, the group soon realises that their modern technology is no match for the ancient evil that stalks the woods...

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Do you remember the pulse quickening terror brought about during the final scenes of The Blair Witch Project? Well rest assured, there are times at which Blair Witch delivers equal chills and thrills.
I've watched my fair share of horror titles this year and I'm going to go on record right now and say that I think Wingard's film might just be the scariest title I've seen so far this year. I shan't spoil the ending of the film, but suffice it to say the last 20 minutes or so of Blair Witch are up there with the climactic scene of REC as some of the most genuinely frightening cinema since the turn of the millennium. EVERYTHING that occurs from the point at which the familiar house in the woods makes an appearance is petrifying. You have been warned.
A big part of this is undoubtedly down to some very clever sound design in the buildup to those moments. Blair Witch takes the echoing cracks and snaps of branches heard in the original movie and then adds some massive, booming treefall noises that really do unnerve the viewer. Combine these with climactic crashes of thunder and it's enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.
This is a movie that really rewards unspoiled viewing, so it's actually very difficult to explain why it works without ruining a lot of its impact. Keeping things as vague as possible, Wingard nails it through very clever film-making, not least of which is the way in which he both efficiently utilises and subverts Found Footage tropes which will be all too familiar to modern genre fans.
The use of camera angles and empty space in particular is effective, causing those of us who have grown accustomed to the trickery of the blockbuster Paranormal Activity films to anxiously scan the screen for frights that may or may not be forthcoming.
Often those that do arrive are of the jumpscares variety and — cheap as they are — they are flawlessly executed. I also want to praise the manner in which the film directly addresses the one major logical flaw of many Found Footage flicks. In this case the film never feels too convenient in the way in which it happens to capture the action at the right time, Wingard manages to keep the movie feeling natural, never forced, which is no mean feat. The ear-piece cams worn by the characters also deal with that ever-present criticism of the genre: 'Why the hell are these people still carrying a camera when they should be running for their lives?'
The plot, written by Wingard's long-term collaborator Simon Barrett, is another aspect of the film deserving of credit. What I most admired was the way in which it remained reverential to the established mythos of the first film and assorted supplementary materials, such as those of D.A. Stern's The Blair Witch Project Dossier. The film boasts direct references to the drowning of Eileen Treacle, the dreadful fate of the men at Coffin Rock, serial killer Rustin Parr and, of course, the suspected witch herself — Elly Kedward. There's even an oblique reference to the lurid hoax book, The Blair Witch Cult.
One of my favourite parts of the script was the point at which one character directly contradicted the lore of the Blair Witch universe (prompting an eye-rolling 'oh, here we go, messing with the story' from me), only to be immediately corrected by another character. Smart, very, very smart.
But this story, while familiar, is not a simple retread. What I liked was the manner in which Barrett and Wingard expanded on the plot of the first film. It's a sequel that delivers exactly what fans disappointed by Book of Shadows were waiting for — a continuation AND elaboration of the story of the evil in the Black Hills Forest.
Of course, one thing people expect of a sequel is more — studios often seem to take the ‘Let's take what worked in the first film and crank it up' approach. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fact that from the trio of leads in The Blair Witch Project, we now have double that number of potential victims.
The cast are pretty good, the standouts are probably the very likeable Scott and McCune, whose laid-back natural delivery makes him an easy protagonist to root for.
The rest all do a stand-up job. There are obviously big things in the future for the pretty and talented Hernandez.
Due to the events of the plot, Reid's character is mostly reactionary, but ********** SPOILERS FOLLOW ********** she does a great job of portraying somebody struggling with illness ********** SPOILERS END ********** and she is very sympathetic. 
Elsewhere Lane and Curry are just weird enough to help you buy into their character arc, each really sinking their teeth into the roles.
With plenty going on throughout the story to keep viewers gripped, perhaps the biggest surprise is one that I really want to talk about, if only after you've seen the film. If you do wish to remain unspoiled (and you really, really should), perhaps you would be better off skipping this next section and returning after you've viewed the movie.
Still here?
OK, you have been warned.
********** SPOILERS FOLLOW ********** Either the biggest disappointment or biggest strength (depending on who you're asking) of Myrick and Sanchéz's original movie is that you never shown exactly what is pursuing the hapless victims of the Witch. In this sequel, Wingard gives a face to the fear. Sure, it's only a fleeting glimpse, but we are shown a couple of (what appear to be) genuine corporeal forms for the entity that lurks within the Black Hills Forest. The most eye-catching of these is definitely the spindly-legged form of Elly Kedward, stretched to breaking point by the torture inflicted upon her by the people of Blair. This tree-like figure is legitimately unsettling, and reminded me of some of the restless spirits from the Vicious Brothers' underrated Found Footage flicks, the Grave Encounters series, crossed with the truly haunting Medeiros girl from REC's attic scene. It's a seriously scary creation and works very well indeed within the plotline of the movie. ********** SPOILERS END **********

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): As I said before, The Blair Witch Project was a truly groundbreaking movie. Unfortunately, Blair Witch is not.

One of the main criticisms I've seen levelled at the film is that it is, essentially, a retelling of much that has come before. This is probably a rather valid complaint. Sure, there is a little expansion on the story but, at the risk of spoiling the film, the plotline for this is: kids go looking in the woods to find answers about a local mystery, kids get lost, scary things happen.
Sound familiar?
Bizarrely, the additional material is also a point of contention. An ill-advised venture into body-horror feels ill-matched with the existing mythology (even if it is rather effective), while I have heard some arguments about the manner in which other additional elements were introduced. I'd argue that the integration of time distortion into the plot is not as out there as first suggested — the supplemental material to the original film makes it clear that the footage shot by Heather, Josh and Mike was discovered in the ruins of Rustin Parr's home, a shack that had burnt to the ground back in the Forties, yet they were obviously roaming around within its still-intact confines during the final act of The Blair Witch Project. With that in mind, is abrupt leaping from day to night really that much of a stretch?
Sadly, there are a number of very silly moments in the script that are less easy to write off — I'd say the point at which the only physically impaired member of the group opts to climb a VERY tall tree in the middle of a thunderstorm to retrieve the drone (which has itself proved utterly useless up to this point) is one of the most bone-headed character decisions I've EVER seen in a horror movie. The ending also suffers from somebody clearly and obviously making a very, very stupid mistake.
But back to the drone. Oh dear, the drone. It seemed such a cool idea! Just imagine the tension that can be caused by an aerial shot showing something moving through the woods drawing inexorably closer to our helpless leads. Awesome right? Except the drone never does anything. AT ALL. It feels almost like a scene has been cut in which the drone actually contributes to the film in some way, because as it stands, it's pretty much just used to pad out five minutes of running time that amount to nothing... well, except the aforementioned idiotic tree-climbing sequence.
I also had an issue with the cast. It's not that they're poor actors per se, it's just that they're all a bit too Hollywood in their looks and their lines are all just a little too crisply scripted. One of the standout features of the original film is that the three hapless film-makers looked and sounded like real people (undoubtedly aided by the fact that the vast majority of the dialogue was improvised). In this sequel they look and sound like the young stars of a horror movie, and sadly, this can take you out of the viewing experience at times.
It didn't help that the cast were subject to that great bane of modern horror: the irritating jumpscare. These were entirely unnecessary and only served to remind us that we were watching a horror movie. How many times did somebody suddenly dive out of the bushes to grab a friend while abruptly shouting at the top of their lungs in Myrick and Sanchéz's original? Let me answer — None. It happens at least half a dozen times by the midway point of Blair Witch.
The other big bugbear that many modern audiences have — especially with Found 
Footage films — is the use of shakycam and the manner in which it makes working out exactly WHAT we're meant to be scared of difficult to work out. Unfortunately there are few points during this movie when the screen basically consists of juddery green and brown blurs accompanied by heavy breathing and shrill yelling as the characters flee through the woodland. It's distracting and at times it does impair one's ability to enjoy the film.
Perhaps the biggest problem that Blair Witch faces however, is that it has arrived toward the tail-end of the Found Footage craze. While its predecessor felt new and fresh with its approach, Blair Witch boasts a look and some sequences that feel just a little too familiar for genre fans. Wingard does a sterling job of shaking these up, but there are still a number of sequences and scenes that feel very 'been there, done that'. I sympathise with Wingard in this respect — when Joe Berlinger tried something different with his Blair Witch sequel, critics and fans widely rallied against his approach to the source material. Now Wingard has steered closer to the vision of Myrick and Sanchéz, he is accused of showing a lack of originality. Damned if you do, damned if you don't...
Finally, I return to the uber-spoiler above. Once again, I urge you to look away here until you have seen the film yourself. It's worth it, honest.
Still with me? Read on. 
********** SPOILERS FOLLOW ********** I'm one of those who holds the opinion that the fact the evil entity in the Black Hills Forest remains unseen throughout the The Blair Witch Project is one of that movie's biggest strengths. The imagination is far more potent a device than the most powerful special effects packages. By presenting us with actual visual depictions of the entity (or, as some reports are saying, at least some of the forms through which it haunts prey) it loses some of its air of mystery. It isn't helped by the fact that the Elly Kedward spirit depicted is so familiar to those Found Footage monsters I listed above. I love the diabolical beasties of Grave Encounters and REC, but for some reason I wanted more from the granny of them all. Of course, this is my own preference and I'm sure there will be plenty of dissenters out there who disagree. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! ********** SPOILERS END **********

THE VERDICT: Despite what is being reported as disappointing box office results, Blair Witch is a solid, if not game-changing horror film. In terms of frights, I can't think of many genre movies that touch the sheer terror of the closing scenes of the film. Isn't that what horror fans want?

I'm a fan of The Blair Witch Project and, while I can see that the plot isn't necessarily the strongest, Blair Witch deserves full credit for the way in which Wingard and Barrett both stay true to AND expand upon the existing lore. As a standalone horror movie, it works. As a continuation of the story of Elly Kedward and the mysterious event of the Black Hills Forest, it delivers as well. Check it out.
Blair Witch is at UK cinemas now. You can visit the official Facebook page here.

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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