'Blair Witch' is a fresh spin on the old familiar

City Paper

In "Blair Witch," Adam Wingard's sequel to "The Blair Witch Project," everyone's a cameraman. Literally: most characters are outfitted with cameras as mounted earpieces, allowing their perspective in a given scene to become our perspective. Not only is this extremely apt at a point in time where everyone has an iPhone with a decent camera, it allows "Blair Witch" to alternate between many different camera angles while still staying true to the conceit that what we're watching is footage recovered, once again, from the spooky Black Hills of Burkittsville, Maryland. This approach really defines the film as a whole: It's the same movie we've seen before but created with the benefit of better technology and presented from significantly more interesting angles. 

The plot follows Lisa (Callie Hernandez) as she attempts a class video project centered on her friend James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of "The Blair Witch Project" protagonist/documentary filmmaker Heather. The pair, along with James' childhood friend Peter and Peter's girlfriend Ashley, set out into the dark and deep woods after James finds a video of what appears to be his sister on—where else—YouTube. The group is led into the woods by locals Lane and Talia, a weirdo brother and sister duo obsessed with the occult who found the tape in the first place. 

The first third of "Blair Witch" is nearly beat for beat the opening of the original film. Our intrepid team is introduced, we watch them get hammered at night and drive out into the wilds of Maryland hungover the next morning. The camera even lingers on the parked cars of our heroes as they head to certain doom, a direct visual reference to a famously specific shot from "The Blair Witch Project." While this feels derivative, you get a sense of an eerie ritual occurring here: This has happened before and it will happen again. And once "Blair Witch" reaches the woods, the film begins to let loose: a gruesome foot injury; noises in the night; creepy stick people start to materialize; and suddenly everyone's watches aren't working anymore.

The film's depiction of the Blair Witch, or lack thereof, lands somewhere in the middle ground between the original's refusal to show what was going bump in the night and a "Sinister"-style monster fest. "Blair Witch" extrapolates its titular ghoul into an utterly alien force, impossibly gaunt yet somehow able to skitter between hallways and tree lines. Importantly, you never get quite a good enough look.

Screenwriter Simon Barrett fleshes out the mythology to add rules to the game (you have to sleep overnight in the woods, you're dead if you look at the witch directly) that make what plays out a little less one-sided. We all know what's going to go down: At least Lisa had the foresight to bring a knife. And as our surviving crew arrives at a familiar house, the film throws everything it has at us. Wingard delivers an especially troubling haunted house full of impossible rooms and hallways. The "twist" of the finale is cleverly choreographed and clearly designed to inspire conversation and speculative Tumblr fan theories galore.

Aside from maybe one too many "oh, it's you!" jump scares, "Blair Witch's" horror is straightforward. A twitching wound, a human spine snapping in half like a twig, things like that. While not as authentic as watching the actor/guinea pigs of "The Blair Witch Project" descend into (somewhat genuine) frustration and exhaustion, the core ensemble of "Blair Witch" is compelling because they're played as fairly intelligent and capable. There's a point where James helps Lisa calm down after they've just escaped some fucked up witchery and it's a rare moment in a modern horror movie where characters take time to just breathe. The character relationships are grounded in honest affection: James' love for his long lost sister, James and Lisa's unspoken love, even James and Peter's ride-or-die bro friendship.

And, ultimately, that's what dooms them. We like these people, you root for them in the face of this unknowable supernatural force. That what happens to these people is completely beyond their control and comprehension is what makes the movie so terrifying and ultimately tragic.

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