Monday, October 31, 2016

Blair Witch (2016)

I think a lot of people missed Blair Witch (2016), so let me break it down in a rare but necessary spoiler-intensive format. Before I get started, who the fuck thought September 16th was a good theatrical release date for this movie? Mid-September was too early for the Halloween season, and when not many people were in the mood yet for scary movies or shitty horror sequels Blair Witch got pulled from theaters prematurely. I barely managed to see it on October 1st as only a few theaters in the entire San Francisco Bay Area were still fucking playing it in its third weekend.

So is it any good? Blair Witch is quite the mixed bag. There are some good ideas presented and executed, but ultimately the fact that this movie is a found-footage film that doesn't take itself 100% seriously undermines the atmosphere it attempts to develop (at least until the finale) and largely detracts from what its potential could have been.

Blair Witch is a direct sequel to The Blair Witch Project which originally showed the path of three high school students who go hiking in the Black Hills of Burkittsville, Maryland while filming a documentary about the urban legend of the Blair Witch, an entity which is the supposed incarnation of a woman who was cruelly murdered in the woods near the abandoned town of Blair in the 1800s. When this movie first came out in 1999 it developed a lot of hype because at the time a lot of people believed that these three teenagers actually got lost and either died or were killed in the woods and someone found their footage and edited it into a movie. This was the first really popular "found-footage" film, so the world was a bit more naive back then. Even today though, knowing all the promotional content was a hoax, The Blair Witch Project holds up incredibly well because it develops a captivating mythology of the Blair Witch and local phenomena, has good acting from a believable cast, and demonstrates the very scary feeling of not only being lost in the wilderness but also being taunted by an unknown follower in the shadows. If Jaws (1975) made audiences afraid to swim in the ocean, The Blair Witch Project surely made any viewers equally wary of off-trail hiking. The film's minimalist approach and ambiguity work in its favor to stir speculation about the myths discussed with Burkittsville citizens at the beginning of the movie before it cuts the tape with an eerie, open-ended scene which is the last the world ever sees of Heather Donahue and her surviving classmate.

The 2016 follow-up, Blair Witch makes the bold move in showing the audience that the urban legend of the Blair Witch is true and even dares to show glimpses of the witch itself. I'm sure a lot of people won't agree with this decision because they like the ambiguity of the original or believe that what you don't see is more scary than what you do, but I'm a supporter of the risk taken here because the new movie is not only sparing and effective with its visuals but also incorporates several ideas that develop and reveal the mystic forces at work in the woods of the Blair Witch. The basic setup is that Heather Donahue's younger brother and three of his friends journey into the woods of the Black Hills in search of Heather 20 years after the events of the first movie, guided by a YouTube couple who recently faked a video supposedly filmed in the same house which Heather and Mike were in at the conclusion of their found recordings. A day into the trip the YouTubers are discovered to be liars with no knowledge of the woods, and everyone is on edge as weird things start happening beginning with the classic hanging stick bundles outside of the travellers' tents and unexplained noises at nighttime. The Blair Witch mythos is summarized and expanded early and often. For example, staying overnight in the woods is supposedly what triggers the haunting of the witch, and the witch can only attack those who face her directly which is the supposed reason why Mike was standing in the corner at the conclusion of Heather Donahue's recorded footage 20 years prior. When crossing a river barefoot, one of the group members cuts her foot and becomes infected with what seems to be more than just bacteria as delusions and fevers begin followed by strange behavior. Most interesting is the passage of time and suggested dimensional powers of the Blair Witch. The adventurers routinely oversleep until impossible hours of the afternoon, inexplicably find themselves travelling in circles, and eventually find daybreak to never come at all. After the main protagonists part ways with the YouTube couple, they're later reunited only to discover that an entire week has passed for the others who are starving and that the guy has grown a beard. This makes those who are still remaining and intelligible question their own sanity as well as the extent that two strangers might go just to fuck with them. The finale, however, proves to all that the Blair Witch is fucking real as they end up at the mysterious house in the forest and find that they're not alone. We see flashes of a lanky, pale entity with dark hair and long claws. It's really unsettling and is shown briefly enough that it's difficult for the viewer to be overcritical of the design. The appearance is different here than suggested in the original movie in which a Burkittsville local describes the witch as having long brown hair covering its body like an animal, but the look works and fits with the tale of how Blair villagers hung the old woman and tied weights to her arms and legs before she died. After a long and suspenseful climax scene of facing the corners and running blind, the Blair Witch kills 'em all after tricking the survivors in classic fashion by calling out in the voices of Heather Donahue and other friends, and once you face the witch you never live for the trek home.

So there's a lot that I like, but what really brings the movie down for me is the shitty character writing (there could have been just 4 instead of 6) and horror cliche naughty-kids-get-killed moments that border on gore-comedy. It's the typical kind of scenes where the theater will shout at the screen "don't go in there!", "get the fuck out of the house!", and so on, the character impulsively disobeys the audiences better judgment, and seconds later is either murdered or severely injured to roaring applause. A more recent cliche that annoys me is the feeble incorporation of contemporary technology in a blatant attempt to "update" a story or franchise for new audiences. What's the point? It just instantly dates the movie and usually does nothing for the actual story. I've seen this tactic done well, however, in a few instances. A couple good examples are Open Water (2016) with the GoPro footage washing up on shore and being found by the kid or Carrie (2013) in which the high school cheerleaders record video of the locker room shower incident and publicly shame Carrie by posting it to social media. In Blair Witch, however, we get all the excitement of a drone (which our tech-salvy protagonists intended to use to survey the woods from above) malfunctioning, the drone later getting stuck high up in a tree, and the dumb bitch with the infected leg climbing the tree to retrieve it only to fall out of the tree.

The verdict: what we got with Blair Witch was an unnecessary but passable sequel that doesn't commit to an appropriate tone. This outcome has become apparent with more and more retreads which have been released in the past couple years. There was an earlier sequel to The Blair Witch Project back in 2000, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which kind of sucked and was less connected to the original movie but at least took itself more seriously. Whereas the original is a classic, the sequels are nothing I feel the need to see more than once.