I've been following the filmmaking career of Adam Wingard since meeting him and catching what was actually his second full-length horror feature, Pop Skull, at a Midwestern film festival in 2007. Since that time, Wingard has built up quite the reputation amongst indie horror fans with such efforts as You're Next, The Guest and others.
It was a surprise, at least to most people, when Wingard's latest project, which had been in production under the name The Woods, was revealed to be in, fact, Blair Witch, a film that essentially serves as a sequel to the 1999 original that pretty much began the found-footage genre and continues to be the film by which all other found-footage flicks are judged. However, there's also a strong argument to be made that Blair Witch is closer to a remake than a sequel, a film that is structured with such reverence to the original film that it's difficult to watch the film without reflecting upon one's experience watching the original film over 15 years ago.
This reverence is, in fact, both the film's greatest weakness and a rather surprising strength.
Blair Witch, despite its flaws, is going to be the film that makes Adam Wingard a household name, a massively overdue occurrence that is marred only by the sad but true fact that Blair Witch is, without question, one of Wingard's weakest films to date.
It's no secret that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the 2000 film that served as nothing more than a studio money grab was wildly unsatisfying. Blair Witch is both a better film than the original The Blair Witch Project and a less effective cinematic experience. It's reasonable, maybe more than reasonable, to say that Blair Witch couldn't possibly achieve what The Blair Witch Project achieved, because the element of surprise is gone and we're left with what can simply be called a very good horror film created with a significantly higher production budget and vastly superior production values by a filmmaker who gets the source material and by a screenwriter, Simon Barrett, who transcends the usual indie horror tropes.
The film kicks off with James (James Allen McCune), the brother of the original's Heather Donahue, stumbling across a video tape reported to have been found in 2014 Burkittsville, a full fifteen years after his sister's disappearance. With filmmaker friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) in tow, James heads off to Burkittsville to see if he can solve the mystery of what happened to his sister. When he arrives, he immediately hooks up with locals Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the former being the mysterious weirdo who actually discovered the tape.
The cameras that are used in Blair Witch are a massive improvement with our crew incorporating everything from a drone to GPS to smaller, more mobile cameras used in creative and disorienting ways for both the key players and those of us watching the film. While it may seem like this would ruin the whole primitive aspect of the original film, Wingard knows his way around a camera and manages to make the advanced technology work in favor of the film.
Barrett's script, while fundamentally faithful to the original film, is also filled with creative twists and unexpected turns. While we're not talking about even Wingard's best here, the truth is that Blair Witch works a whole lot better than a lot of folks are expecting. The film's supernatural elements are comprehensively brought to life, especially those of Elly Kedward who, for novices, is the Blair Witch herself.
And no, after fifteen years that's not a spoiler.
Given that Blair Witch is a more substantial film than one might expect, it would have been reasonable to have hoped for a tad more character development than we're given amongst the mostly unknown cast. While I wouldn't exactly say I felt apathy toward them, I certainly lacked investment in their journey. The film's ending, as well, may prove somewhat dissatisfying to some, though not nearly enough to put a damper on the rest of the nearly 90-minute journey. The ensemble cast, while not necessarily a stand-out, ably handles the material and is clearly in sync with Wingard's vision for the film.
If it only serves to turn Wingard into a household name, Blair Witch will have accomplished more than enough. An immensely talented director, Wingard may not be having his finest moment with Blair Witch but this should be the moment that makes sure we hear a whole lot more from Wingard in the future.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic