Blair Witch Can’t Catch Lightning In A Bottle

To date, The Blair Witch Project remains one of the biggest indie horror movie successes of all time. Love it or hate it, the shaky-cam found-footage kicked off an entire horror sub-genre. So you can’t blame Hollywood for trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice. What followed was the disappointing sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. A rushed sequel that ignored everything that made the original movie work, Book of Shadows bombed with critics and audiences alike. So when Adam Wingard (You’re Next, Godzilla vs Kong) revealed his next project, The Woods, was actually a Blair Witch sequel, there was genuine interest. Time had passed and Wingard had a strong track record. Except Blair Witch fared only slightly better than Book of Shadows. So how did a project with so much potential fall so short of expectations?

Synopsis

It’s been 17 years since James Donahue’s sister, Heather disappeared in Black Hills Forest. But when he sees a YouTube video with an image that looks like his sister, James and his friends decide to brave the legend of the ‘Blair Witch’ and return to the woods. With two local resident acting as guides, the group treks deep into the woods to film their own documentary. Things quickly take a disturbing turn as the group find themselves lost and surrounded by an ominous presence. Just like his sister, James and his friends are about to learn that the legends are all too true.

Blair Witch Fails To Conjure Up Enough New Twists To Distinguish Itself

In many ways, The Blair Witch suffered from the same problem as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After Book of Shadows deviated too much from a winning formula, Wingard and writer Simon Barrett hedged their bets. Instead, what The Blair Witch offered was more of a ‘re-quel’ than an actual sequel. Part reboot, part sequel, The Blair Witch technically continues the original movie’s story in the thinnest possible way. A younger sibling desperately searching for answer’s to his sister’s disappearance at least places the movie within some continuity. But Wingard and Barrett spend way too much time recycling what worked in The Blair Witch Project. Much of the sequel’s first two-thirds largely feels like a redux.

While The Blair Witch Project could slow burn with these story developments, Blair Witch doesn’t have the same luxury.

Here and there, The Blair Witch does tweak a few things. There’s a a cool bit with a drone, though Wingard doesn’t milk it for quite as much as one might have hoped. And Barrett’s screenplay introduces a nice twist with time loops that actually works within the context set by the original movie. Still Blair Witch re-introduces too many plot points with little new to add to the formula. We’ve already seen campers wake up to stick figures hanging from trees. While The Blair Witch Project could slow burn with these story developments, Blair Witch doesn’t have the same luxury. There’s no more surprises and less unknown for Wingard and Barrett to navigate. Yet they make the mistake of offering up too much of the same.

Blair Witch Almost Casts A Spell in its Final Act

Once Blair Witch dares to chart out some unfamiliar territory, the sequel markedly improves. Like some of the best horror movies, The Blair Witch Project thrived on what it didn’t show you rather than what it put on the screen. Wingard opts to go in the opposite direction for better or worse. With a bigger budget, Blair Witch doles out a couple of shocking moments including one scene where a character is bent in half. Though it’s something you would never have seen in the original it actually works here. What’s missing is that slow-burn buildup in tension. Too much familiarity early in the movie undercuts any real sense of danger or tension.

With a bigger budget, Blair Witch doles out a couple of shocking moments …

As Blair Witch hits its third act, however, Wingard ratchets up the tension. Despite taking us to the same endpoint as The Blair Witch Project, Wingard actually diverts from the source material. A chase through a tight underground tunnel conjures up some excellent claustrophobic horror. Some horror fans will take issue with showing the actual witch. Granted, it does go against everything that made the first movie work. Nonetheless, Wingard never shows much – what he gives you is enough to sufficiently creep you out. No creature design was ever going to approximate what fans could imagine. But Blair Witch does a good job in this regard. And even if the climax relies on some pretty illogical character choices, it’s still tense and bleak. It does help that both James Allen McCune and Callie Hernandez (The Endless) sell the moment.

Blair Witch More Underwhelming Than Bad

To some extent, critical response to Blair Witch has been unfair. By no measure is it a ‘bad’ movie’. Certainly, Wingard makes significantly improvements over Book of Shadows. Nonetheless, Blair Witch errs too far on the side of caution. As the saying goes, it really is hard to catch lighting in a bottle. The Blair Witch Project worked because everything it did was so new for the genre. Even younger fans will be familiar with Blair Witch’s long set-up. By 2016 found-footage horror movies had already lost steam. The whole format was too familiar. Where this sequel fails is in finding a balance between what fans liked in 1999 and carving out some fresh territory.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B-

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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