The mantra that there’s nothing new under the sun is… nothing new, considering Hollywood has been remaking its own films since the 1920s. The much loved Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz wasn’t the first time L. Frank Baum’s beloved story had been transferred to the silver screen to name one pertinent example. Let’s set down torches for Blair Witch. The writer-director combo Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are responsible for two of the best cult horrors in the past few years (You’re Next and The Guest) so the reveal that their latest film, The Woods, was actually an ultra-secret sequel to 1999's landmark found footage film The Blair Witch Project, was met with tentative cheers.
With its achingly cool poster, Blair Witch stands out amongst the current crop of modern horror by both having some prior cult prestige, and the stylish curation of Wingard behind it. The decision to go back to such a paradigm shift of a film must have been a tortuous one, which explains the attachment of Roy Lee, the producer that helped usher horror into vogue in America with Verbinski’s Ring and Raimi’s Grudge remakes.
This remake is in incredibly safe hands, but poised in an interesting way. Some might say The Blair Witch Project is a terrible horror film, but an incredibly vital piece of experimental filmmaking that burst into the mainstream through a careful concoction of hype and intentional blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. Myrick and Sanchez’s original film isn’t without its moments of shock, and it has a brooding atmosphere that’s as heady and oppressive as the forest air. This marks it out as unique, but also too placid and cool to survive in the world of modern horror, where every film succeeding Paranormal Activity treats The Blair Witch Project as palimpsest.
Wingard takes us back to the Black Hills Forest as James — brother of Heather from the original has organised to meet an amateur filmmaker that has supposedly recovered new footage from the first expedition. Spurred on by documentary film student Lisa, and joined by their mutual friends, they set off to find some trace of the erstwhile party. Since it’s a contemporary film, the tech has improved: ear-mounted cameras, infra-red webcams and drones all feature giving Wingard a greater range of movement and novelty than was afforded to the crew in 1999.
A cast of relative unknowns (Callie Hernandez, James Allen McCune, Valorie Curry) fit the bill as boilerplate college kids, and the kooky pair of Confederate flag toting, death metal listening outcasts that accompany the group on the visit are realised well enough. Where the film truly diverges from the original is in its relentlessness and its awareness of itself and its legacy. Care is taken to slowly build up to the point where the film tips from tension to out and out horror, but when the highest peaks in tension are reached, the film explodes forwards without a pause.
The fiction of the Blair Witch is expanded on to give audiences something less ambiguous to grasp. Temporal fuckery, and actual factual witchcraft come into play to gruesome effect, interestingly building on the stone mounds and wooden figures of the original — one particular scene involving the little figures is a snappy highmark of the whole film. Unfortunately, the decision to veer into genuine paranormal activity is a pyrrhic victory. The vagueness of the original is scooped out and replaced with a very physical dread rather than the crushing sense of the unknown that fogged up the first film. Fans of the more reserved approach of the original will be disappointed by the new brutality, but it creates an effective thrill ride.
Unlike its predecessor, it’s very clear there’s something evil in the woods but exposure is minimal. The cracks and thuds of the sound design are the driving force of the terror, with splitting trees and far off howls ratcheting up tension even when the digital cameras artefact, blow-out and generally obscure vision. The knowing nature of the script helps too, and Barrett excels in peppering the film with call backs and witty retorts to audience expectation. After the third or fourth time a character jumps out to surprise another person, a weary Lisa exclaims “Could everybody stop doing that?”. It acutely sums up both modern horror’s reliance on traditional jump scares and acknowledges that they’re an utterly vital and storied tool in the artifice of horror.
A storm heralds the final moments of the film, as the remaining cast uncover the very real constructions that acted as a nexus for the Blair Witch mythology. It’s one of the most convincing transfers of the ruthlessness of nature to screen, with the sound design once again coming through as the true star of this show (no surprise given Wingard’s pedigree) as the remorseless lashing of rain and booming thunderclaps become overbearing. After a gruelling ordeal in a tunnel, the film finishes as abruptly as the original.
Blair Witch comes with some amount of baggage. It became a franchise, and was mined for book sequels and even video games. One of the key elements of horror is forcing an audience to travel down roads they don’t want to, making them brush up against the truly horrific. When the roads are already well worn, it’s hard to convince your audience to hide behind their hands. Blair Witch may not succeed in being the revolution in horror as its early previews suggested, but it is lovingly crafted for a project so steeped in expectation. Its first half stays true to the isolation of the original, whereas its second half stands exclusively for a modern audience. It never quite manages to tie these together in way that elevates the experience, but it’s proof that Wingard and Barrett are a duo qualified to handle the genre with ease.
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