Blair Witch is spoiler-proof. It contains not one original or authentic moment, not one "twist" or character arc that its target audience won't have seen in The Blair Witch Project, or in the dozens of knock-offs it inspired. Most distressing of all, the scares depend entirely on the volume at which one watches the movie. Horror's found-footage sub-genre is on its last legs, and instead of giving audiences a reason to show up for more, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett hobble the flailing, wailing, pathetic beast before our very eyes. There's literally nothing to see here. Move along.
Unlike 2000's rushed sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the new movie dispenses with the meta-narrative of Blair Witch Project fans venturing into the Maryland woods. Blair Witch is a conventional follow-up to the 1999 sleeper hit, and finds the Heather Donahue character's younger brother, James (James Allen McCune) retracing his missing sibling's steps with another crew of amateur filmmakers. Armed with ear-mounted cameras, LED perimeter sensors, a drone, and absolutely no concern that they might actually encounter something in the legendary haunted forest, James and his polished, bitchy Dead Meat friends go camping--but they don't go camping...alone! DUN-DUN-DUN!
Or should I say, "Dumb, Dumb, Dumb"?
Blair Witch is the definition of marketing-driven filmmaking. Were it not for the brand-name recognition; Wingard and Barrett's cred in the horror community; and a clever unveiling at Comic-Con,* this movie would have been forgotten two minutes after crash-landing at Redbox. The story beats are a mash-up of The Blair Witch Project and Book of Shadows, down to the filmmakers separating into rival camps; discovering eerie artifacts ("Now with MORE rock piles and BIGGER stick-men!!!!!"); and walking in circles. The mysterious witch house springs up at precisely the same point as it did in the original, and the two hapless survivors barge into it, screaming like idiots.
Wingard and Barrett's "new" story contributions include a girl whose foot becomes infected with an otherworldly worm;** another character getting attacked by angry, growling trees; and an "homage" to the circular-purgatory twist of Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, which you won't need a drone to see coming. Say what you want about Joe Berlinger's ill-conceived Book of Shadows, that film had a point of view, a voice that took on the daunting chore of pushing an already somewhat novel idea in an even more novel direction. Blair Witch offers no evidence that Wingard and Barrett even have a voice beyond that of a parrot--one that sits atop a multi-million-dollar, studio-constructed perch, far above such pedestrian concerns as justifying its existence.
If you want a solid (and far more affordable) thrill this weekend, rent Bobcat Goldthwait's Willow Creek. It's a found-footage movie about two would-be YouTube stars looking for Bigfoot, and it's made by someone who can't stand the sub-genre's dull clichés. Like The Blair Witch Project, this smart, creepy (and occasionally funny) film understands that an hour-and-a-half of jump scares and frantic POV whip-pans around a moldy haunted-house is not inherently scary. It's just artifice in search of emotion.
*An audience who thought they'd showed up for a movie called The Woods was surprised to learn that Wingard's latest was a new Blair Witch sequel. Cue the hype. Having now seen the film, I'm convinced that the positive buzz coming out of San Diego had everything to do with the high of being first--as close to, I'd wager, the bragging-rights euphoria felt by early Blair Witch Project audiences in '99, before the world at large knew it wasn't a documentary.
**If you take a shot every time the filmmakers sacrifice scares for squirms by depicting the wrapping and unwrapping of bloody wounds, you'll be drunk halfway through Blair Witch (not a bad idea, regardless).