75. Blair Witch

The original The Blair Witch Project was the very epitome of a success upon its release in 1999.  On a shoestring budget of only $60,000, that film went on to gross over $248 million worldwide.  Generally speaking, a movie makes a profit and is considered a success if it grosses 2.5 times its budget.  The Blair Witch Project made a gross slightly below a practically unheard of (maybe even literally unheard of outside of that film!) 4144 times its budget!  Films don’t get more successful than that.

Most audiences and critics loved the film, as well.  It popularized the Found Footage style of filmmaking which works particularly well for horror films.  And, whether it was due to the lack of funds or to a level of perception far beyond that of most on the part of writers/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, that film showed exactly why what one doesn’t see is far scarier than what one does.  It felt visceral and it felt like it could happen to any of us.  In fact, many people believed it was real and that the three stars of the film were all actually dead and gone (even though they made the rounds doing promotion once the film started gaining steam).  The town of Burkittsville, Maryland, quickly became a tourist destination for horror buffs as well as ghost hunters and true-crime lovers, alike.

For me, The Blair Witch Project was a milestone as it was the first film I traveled more than 30 minutes to see.  I drove 90 minutes with several of my friends, my sister, and several of her friends to see the movie.  I loved the unique experience and I actually recently re-watched the film when it came out on blu-ray, not all that long ago.  I think it freaked me out then more than ever before.

A sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was released the next year but the lightning successfully avoided the bottle, that time.  Not wanting to simply copy the original, Myrick and Sanchez along with new director Joe Berlinger made a more traditional film that failed to capture the imagination of its intended audience.  I liked it, myself, due to the understated implications of its story revelations but it never truly felt like a Blair Witch movie.

And that finally brings us to now, with another sequel that seems to take the story back to its roots.  Simply titled Blair Witch, this film pulled a 10 Cloverfield Lane and marketed itself as a completely unrelated movie called The Woods until its true nature was revealed through a trailer to a surprised audience at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, just a couple of months ago.  I love it and I wish we could be surprised like that more often.  Kudos.

The film has also had a lot of buzz around it, so this has been one of my more-anticipated films in a while.  I sat down excited and optimistic!

The story is simple; James, the brother of Heather Donahue from the original film, sets out to find his sister in the Black Hills Forest, where she famously disappeared.  His friends Lisa, Ashley, and Peter come along to document the search and we’re off and running.

The film is a fun enough ride, but the filmmakers involved here have picked up on what I ranted about recently – that audiences aren’t interested in original ideas.  So, Blair Witch gives audiences much of the same of what we got in The Blair Witch Project.  Now, to be fair, this makes a lot of narrative sense.  The characters are in the same place and dealing with the same entity as the original group, so they should naturally share some of the same experiences.  So, had I been writing this film, I would have taken that same approach.

The problem therein is that audiences have been desensitized to these specific events over the last seventeen years.  So, while it’s logical from a storyline perspective, much of the scare factor is lost for those who are intimately familiar with the first film.

As the film progresses, this is somewhat counterbalanced with some fresh ideas that are brought along by further insight into the lore as well as newer technology that the group has access to when compared to their predecessors.  The climax is longer and more satisfying than that of the first film, though it also covers some familiar ground.  Most will probably be entertained by it, though.

What I wanted as much of anything from this film was further expansion of the mythology.  I just mentioned that there is more insight into the Blair Witch, herself, and that’s true.  But it’s very minimal.  I have no problem with sequels.  And I have no problem with getting more of the same from a sequel.  After all, we want sequels to feature the things we liked so much about the films that came before them.  But a sequel should only come along if it’s able to add significantly to the universe it inhabits and become a worthy companion piece to whatever preceded it.  We get very little – some – but very little of that in Blair Witch, so I can’t help but wonder what compelled them to move forward with the film in the first place

Besides that, I also had a very hard time making out what was happening.  Found footage films, as I said, work well for horror.  But there needs to be a balance between maintaining that illusion and communicating the story to the audience.  The Paranormal Activity series conquered this issue brilliantly.  But in this film, there are frequent occasions in which we hear a loud noise, see a camera jerk, and then there’s screaming and running, with no information provided regarding what the characters see or what motivates them to react the way that they do.  At points, characters even suddenly die and I still don’t know exactly what happened to them.

Blair Witch is not a “bad” movie, but I walked away feeling underwhelmed.  I actually think it might be a more effective experience for people who are less familiar with the original The Blair Witch Project.  For them, it will be all uncharted territory and hit them with thrills that are completely foreign.  For longtime fans, I think it might be hit-and-miss.  It feels like a Blair Witch movie, but it feels a little too much like a remake and not enough like a sequel.  I want to walk away from a sequel feeling like I learned something new.  About any aspect of the world, at all.  I didn’t get that, here.  So, while it’s an okay film, and will probably scare the daylights out of some of the uninitiated, and while I definitely applaud the marketing department, I’m not entirely sure why Blair Witch exists.

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