“Blair Witch” scares can’t distract from repetition

Charles Liu

“Blair Witch” wasn’t originally thought to be the third “Blair Witch Project” movie. 

First advertised as a new property by Adam Wingard titled “The Woods,” the true nature of the film was revealed at San Diego Comic Con earlier this year. The surprise generated a lot of hype for the long-awaited sequel, especially after the dreadful “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.” But while its scares are generally entertaining, “Blair Witch” misses out on a satisfying payoff.

This found footage movie begins with James (James Allen McCune) and Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a budding filmmaker, setting out to document their hunt for the whereabouts of James’ sister, Heather, who was one of the college students killed in “The Blair Witch Project.” Their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) tag along, although they are skeptical about the legendary Blair Witch. Their guides are Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), two believers of the supernatural. 

Simon Barrett’s script establishes the group dynamics fairly well. The characters exchange sharp remarks and share a lot of chemistry. There are hints that James pines for Lisa, and their relationship subtly grows throughout the film. Peter, an African-American, quickly takes to bickering with Lane because of the Confederate flag mounted in Lane’s home. While all the characters make questionable decisions, all except Lane are likable and engaging.

As with all found footage pictures, “Blair Witch” spends some time justifying how its characters are filming the action. It’s pretty believable when we see them using their unobtrusive headset cameras and actually dropping the handheld ones when life-threatening situations require them to. Nonetheless, the novelty of the genre has worn out, and “Blair Witch” feels nowhere near as fresh as its predecessor.

All seems well until an unseen force begins to stalk the filmmakers. Time suddenly gets wonky as the characters wake up at 7 a.m., only to find it’s still dark outside. The group’s GPS fails them as the forest terrain geographically changes. A cut on Ashley’s foot, sustained from a river crossing, begins to fester into something worse.

But “Blair Witch” often tries too hard to be scary. Wingard doesn’t settle for the quiet but tense atmosphere of “The Blair Witch Project;” he wants “Blair Witch” to be bigger and louder, though that doesn’t necessarily make it better. The faraway cracking of sticks and stones of the first film suggested the presence of an elusive and sinister force constantly watching the protagonists from afar. Wingard replaces that with ear-shattering booms and incessant screaming as trees topple around them – a miscalculated effort to outdo what did not need to be outdone. 

“Blair Witch’s” greatest failing is its inability to expand on the original. It teases with intriguing setups for answers about the Witch’s powers and the mysteries of her domain, but eventually devolves into a haphazard chase movie that ends at the same creepy house Heather and her friends perished in. Wingard settles on rehashing the climax of “The Blair Witch Project” with a bigger budget and better special effects, and while it’s an ending that is respectful of its predecessor, an original conclusion would have been preferable.

Nonetheless, the film is still solid fun. Lisa’s crawl through a grimy tunnel to escape the Witch is a heart-pounding sequence that plays on claustrophobia. Wingard conceals the Witch in the shadows, affording us brief but terrifying glimpses of her thin, ragged frame. Sometimes, when all we can hear is the actors’ heaving breathing, the movie makes you stop and dread what comes next.

“Blair Witch” is best watched with giddy friends, and modern audiences may appreciate its faster pace. For all its faults, this is an engrossing thrill ride that never stops.