It’s 1999, “Hit Me Baby One More Time” plays on the radio as you browse that new website, Myspace. Looking up from your iBook (you’re so on trend) you see a documentary on SciFi channel about a mysterious and chilling string of murders surrounding a quiet out-of-the-way town in Maryland.
You see interviews with residents of the town, who blame the deaths on the ghost of Elly Kedward – a Bair resident accused of, and tried for, witchcraft in the 1700s.
A little while later, you hear people talking about some found footage from that same town. Camera tapes recovered from the woods, depicting the final days of three teenagers who travel to Blair to uncover more about the so called “Blair Witch” several years earlier. You watch, wide eyed, as they are tormented in the woods. Their sanity leaving them, and your own confusion mounting. It isn’t like anything you’ve seen before, the internet is still a relatively new place. You watch them go into a house, one of them facing the corner before the girl falls, the screen going black as the footage just ends. And for a moment you have absolutely no idea if what you just witnessed was real. If you truly saw someone die, sat alone in your living room.
This was the sheer power and impact of The Blair Witch Project. A film that truly defined a genre, that gave horror a new lease of life and became one of the most successful independent films of all time. There was actual, real debates surrounding this movie which simply ended with no credits and no explanation. Heather, Mike, and Josh – the three main characters of the film – had their childhood photos plastered over the internet, with articles upon articles speaking of their disappearance and possible death. It was so expertly marketed, so well received, that the sheer awfulness of Book of Shadows couldn’t ruin it.
And now, 17 years after the release of The Blair Witch Project, comes a film simply titled “Blair Witch”, directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest). Promoted under the faux title of “The Woods”, the project was kept secret during its filming in Vancouver. As such, it came as a surprise when the trailer debuted at San Diegio Comic Con this year; garnering much excitement from series fans but generally mixed reviews from critics.
Set 20 years after the events of the first film, we follow James and his friends Peter, Ashley, and Lisa as they travel back to Maryland in an attempt to find Heather, who we see succumb to her (presumed) death in the final moments of the first film. James is Heather’s younger brother who appears intent on finding his sister and, after seeing a Youtube video that shows a young girl fleeing an unknown entity, becomes convinced that she is still alive and has just been hanging out in the woods for two decades.
Upon making their way to the woods where a vast majority of the first film unfurls, James and his crew meet Lane and Talia, who uploaded the video to Youtube. They say they will take the foursome to where they found and recovered the tape, but only if they can tag along. After spending their first night in the woods, things begin to turn sinister.
There are, of course, differences between Blair Witch and it’s original, though there are a great many similarities too.
One of the main differences is the advancement of technology. Lisa, the tech-junkie of the group, brings some hefty camera equipment with her. Besides a drone, she also ensures each character is donned with a shoulder camera with GPS tracking, walkie-talkies, and even packs her own set of portable cameras to boot.
Lane and Talia, however, aren’t so kitted out. Their camera records using the same tape based technology we see in the first film, leading to shots that shift between high-definition and shaky hand cam footage on a semi-frequent basis. This helps tell the viewer who they’re following, and also adds a layer of disorientation.
As with The Blair Witch Project, our characters begin to be tormented by an unknown entity after spending a night in the woods. The stick-men hang from the trees above their tents, rocks appear in piles surrounding them, screams that seemingly come from nowhere howl through the night; and tensions inevitably run high.
The woods, as with the original, are a character in themselves. That same feeling of being lost, of having no idea where you are with the trees pressing in. The claustrophobia and uncertainty only mounts with each passing minute, with some clever areal shots from the drone making it clear the safety is unreachable soon after the trees thicken.
Tonally, Blair Witch feels entirely different to its predecessor. Adam Wingard has stated that “while the first film is about being lost, this film is about being chased.” – leading to a movie favouring the modern approach to horror over the slow, unnerving burn of the 1999 original.
Action picks up quickly, with backstory layered throughout. We learn more about the Blair Witch, about the murders in the woods, and the legend born from them. All of this is told to us by Lane, who slowly but surely becomes one of the more interesting characters in the film – despite having less screen time than most of the others.
We soon learn that time is as fickle as the woods, with the characters becoming increasingly lost not only in the densely packed trees, but in the hours as well. As a viewer, you begin to realise the sheer impossibility of escape, and rally around the characters much quicker than most horrors to date. It wastes no time with setting the scene, presuming you know the story, the legend of the Blair Witch, and the fate of Heather and her friends. You know she makes you face the corner, what every strange, paranormal occurrence signifies. It makes this assumption for you, and creates a story that tailors to the audience superbly; in that those who have seen The Blair Witch Project would not want to sit through the same backstory, and those who are experiencing the woods for the first time become increasingly confused and lost, discovering the unexplained horror for themselves.
There is a lot Blair Witch does well, with deftly executed pacing and some scenes – especially the final 20 minutes – that are downright terrifying and are easily some of the most intense moments to be found in cinemas in recent memory.
Though as with any sequel to a beloved film, there is much debate about what was done wrong. Many events of the first film repeat, which can be seen as a lazy rehash or a nod to the films roots. Some events remain random and unexplained though, given the mysterious and outright strange occurrences we saw in 1999, this fits the films trope. You are meant to leave feeling unnerved and uncertain, you aren’t meant to be able to explain it all. This was the beauty of The Blair Witch Project when it released: the ambiguity and skepticism it left behind fuelled its fire, made it have the impact it did and solidified it in horror history. Made it memorable.
Much of the debate surrounding Blair Witch online comes from this idea, this feeling that The Blair Witch Project left in the viewer. Some say Blair Witch emulates this feeling, while ranking up the pace to terrifying and intense; yet others will criticise the film for the same reasons, saying it pulls too far from the feverish unknown of the original. Others call to a particular moment in the movie, saying it ruins the franchise completely in a second.
For myself? I did not feel the same unexplained chill I felt after finishing The Blair Witch Project, but the film holds up well in it’s own right. Blair Witch is entertaining, frightening, intense, and will really, really, put you off camping.
All images sourced from IMDB. Featured image sourced from Youtube (Blair Witch – Trailer 2016)