When Adam Wingard’s newest feature was simply called The Woods, it was one of my most anticipated features of the season. A minimalist poster and bone-chilling trailer only intensified my desire to take in the latest offering from the director responsible for such horror knockouts as You’re Next and The Guest. On more than one occasion, a band horror-loving critics sat huddled in the dusk of the theater, waiting for our latest press screening to gear up, pining for the coming collaboration between Wingard and penman cohort Simon Barrett. And then one night, like a nuclear bomb, it hit. The news that shook the horror community to their bones. We had all been bamboozled. The Woods was indeed Blair Witch.
A batch of promising early reviews out of Comic Con helped stay the pain brought on by our rising horror-auteur selling out to the unwanted sequel machine but it was far from a complete antidote. Because regardless of the quality of the picture, Blair Witch is beneath Adam Wingard; a sidestep from an unbelievably promising career that has been aggressively ramping up, winning over audiences and critics alike. You’re Next enjoyed a 75% approval rating on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes while The Guest exceeded it with a whopping 90%.
The latter was a certifiable flop at the box office and the former hardly lit the room on fire. The battle between financial victory and creative liberty is one all great directors must endure and I’m sure that the relative fiscal defeat of his last two projects laid the groundwork for his work here. That accounts for Wingard seeing dollar signs when approached Blair Witch – after all, the original made an astounding $248.6M and even the widely panned sequel clawed its way to $47M – which had been stuck in development hell since 2009. As a launching point for a new voice in horror, sure, sequelizing the groundbreaking found footage cornerstone that is The Blair Witch Project makes perfect sense. For someone of Wingard’s caliber to take it on does not.
Moving on. Just as making Blair Witch is a lateral move in Wingard’s career, Blair Witch as a film is little more than a step sideways from the original picture which so terrified audiences in 1999. There’s lots more traipsing through the woods, lots more snapping noises, lots more shouting names at the top of one’s lungs, lots more crying and screaming and snot and rivers. But everything has been cranked up past the breaking point. The bawling is louder. The stick figure totems are larger. The gore is gorier. The footage HD-ier. The terror remains just as palpable. It’s not Blair Witch 3 so much as it is Blair Witch on Crack.
Simon Barrett, not so creatively I may add, concocts a pathway to revitalizing the franchise through James (James Allen McCune), the now-college-aged brother of Heather, who disappeared so many years ago in the first film. After stumbling across a distressing YouTube video that appears to contain a blurry still of his long lost sister, James mounts an amateur task force to enter the woods that includes flirty documentarian Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and coupled up friends Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott).
Lisa’s hope is to turn James’ unrelenting hunt for his lost sibling into a documentary about PTSD or denial or something (some friend huh?) and as they prepare to ship out, Wingard runs through the humdrum motions of the crew figuring out their gear, running mic checks, capturing accidental club footage, etc.. The found footage genre is so well-worn at this point that it’s almost shocking that Wingard and Barrett deem such scenes necessary to the integrity of the piece. It’s times like this that make me question whether found footage is indeed already dead and just Bruce Willising all of us. If guys as crafty and intelligence as Wingard and Barrett can’t figure a way to write out superfluous fat, then the subgenre can’t have too much steam left in it.
The happy campers four have way upped the ante from the DV micro-tapes of yesteryear. The quartet are fitted with earpiece cameras complete with built-in GPS (which work exactly zero times throughout the film). They even bring along a video drone to reach above the tree-line should the occasion call for such and walkie talkies to keep in touch when someone’s out, say, gathering firewood. Their tech is off the hook although all the pricey items fail to factors into the film in a meaningful way aside from allowing multiple perspectives.
Perhaps the point here is that no level of heightened technology can content with a force as pure and powerful as a malevolent spirit but that might be giving credit where none is due. Ultimately, one would expect more creativity from Wingard and Barrett. And regardless of how expensive and extensive their recording equipment, not one of them thought to wear something other than jeans. I’m willing to excuse one or two non-outdoorsy folk accidentally wearing the worst fabric in the world to be trapped outdoors in, but literally everyone? That’s a respectable level of boneheaded incompetence there.
Before they head out, the group is unexpectedly joined by two more who prove more than meets the eye: Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry). These two found the video that may or may not contain Heather in that oh-so-creepy cabin and uploaded it to YouTube and they see it as their right to frolic off into the enchanted wood with the others. Though they’ve offended the more pigmented members of the group with the proud confederate flag that lives on their wall, they wedge their way in regardless.
With six, there’s twice the amount of people to lose in the woods. Twice the amounts of names to yell. Twice the amount of blood to let. The sextet prove engaging if somewhat overtly manicured. These are clearly not film school students hacking their way through an indie film. This is committee-approved good looks filtered through the studio system. They’re still the best kind of monster fodder in that we don’t particularly relish the thought of their demise, particularly Brandon Scott who snarkily steals the show. Wingard wastes little time hitting his mark and once the group is firmly situated in the woods, the tormenting begins almost immediately. Their chances of escape blips out. A flatline in a feral nowhere.
For all the tedium involved getting the characters into place, the grating hollering of first names, the fairly predictable jump scares peppered throughout (one double jump scare is a much needed moment of comic relief), my heart rate remained spiked nonetheless. I clenched the armrests with all my might. I yelped. I covered my eyes at some of the rather nasty bits (don’t think about Ashley’s foot. Don’t think about Ashley’s foot). There is just something about being lost in an endless terrain – this time the location is displaced from the relative sparse sticks of Maryland to the verdant and drizzly Pacific Northwest of Vancouver – that deeply unsettles me. One of the better things Wingard and Barett do is flesh out the mythology that keeps those woods so reclusive. Allowing time and space to transform into threatening variables proves similarly unsettling and they employ some smart visual to clue us into the wild inner-workings of the witch’s spells.
Wingard throw other fears in our face wily nily, chiefly that of nyctophobia, claustrophobia and severe disorientation. Also vertigo for those in the audience who cannot stand the whirligig of handheld footage of this breed. A tour through the dilapidated cabin of yore is both a fitting and disappointingly expected conclusion and Wingard borrows elements from other horror films – The Descent and The Borderlands to name a few – that prove more than enough to make us squirm thoroughly but contain little actual novelty or originality in themselves, traits that defined the original and ultimately paved its road to success.
CONCLUSION: As a sequel to ‘The Blair Witch Project’, ‘Blair Witch’ expertly ramps up the ominous elements that made the original so nightmare-inducing but in emphasizing raised stakes over creative daring, it fails to accomplish anything new. As an Adam Wingard horror movie, it’s a disappointingly lateral move to material that ought be considered beneath him.