John’s Horror Corner: Blair Witch (2016), discussing a divisive franchise whose third installment offered little new except LOUD NOISES and a videogame monster.
MY CALL: I had fun watching this movie. Once it gets going it’s actually quite exciting if you don’t get overly aggravated by its repetitions from 1999’s playbook. But I also enjoyed it much less after I left the theater and had time to reflect on it. Sigh. Take from that what you will. Felt like a great jumpy popcorn flick to me, but not something for anyone hoping for a satisfying film following up The Blair Witch Project (1999).
Almost 20 years ago, The Blair Witch Project (1999) took theaters by storm in an era before internet hype; before social media minefields of spoiler-rich click bait revealed everything before the opening day of the movie; and, most importantly, before anyone had ever considered found footage to be a subgenre (let alone a subgenre of which they tired). It was about three film students who vanished after venturing the Maryland woods to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their harrowing and turbulent footage behind. The film powerfully impacted the horror industry and its fans, so naturally followed an under-appreciated sequel.
The 1999 indie film was more than a bit divisive. Causing shaky camera-induced motion sickness in a sea of viewers, this otherwise impressive film ignited the tidal wave of found footage hatred in its wake about which so many peevish horror fans moan today.
The more mainstream (and not found footage) studio sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) followed a subsequent group of investigators to Burkittsville, Maryland after seeing The Blair Witch Project (1999), herein treated as a “real movie” within the movie. In this metamovie, our protagonists explored the local mythology only to get caught between mass hysteria or, perhaps, the magical influence of the Blair Witch. Whereas I enjoyed and highly recommend this sequel, the majority of horror-goers don’t seem to share my opinion. An obvious consequence of this backlash being that this new 2016 sequel directly follows The Blair Witch Project (1999) while apparently ignoring the events of Book of Shadows (2000). However, one could thinly argue that both sequel stories transpired and that their constituent investigators simply never crossed paths in person or in research.
Now with this third film upon us the Blair Witch has become a franchise—a brand. So it came as no surprise that such a stylistic indie filmmaker was chosen for this third Blair Witch film which, for fear of being stoned to death, I dare not call the completion of a “trilogy.” Director Adam Wingard (The Guest, V/H/S 2 – Phase I Clinical Trials, The ABCs of Death – Q is for Quack, V/H/S – Tape 56, You’re Next) is no stranger to found footage, nor to taking the road less traveled to pursue less mainstream-style horror stories. He has even taken it upon himself to helm the risky American remakes of Death Note (2006) and I Saw the Devil (2010). And where we find Wingard, we find writer Simon Barrett, who wrote all of the Wingard projects mentioned above, including the upcoming Americanized remakes. They make a good team…I have high hopes for this film. Or should I say, I had high hopes.
Having just left the theater I can comfortably say it was consistent nerve-racking fun…but also rather annoyingly just more of the same, turned up to an “11” and super loud. If you can enjoy a film simply for its rollercoaster jumpiness and ignore its content altogether, then you could end up loving this completely unoriginal film. It’s a thrillride and it’s great at being a thrillride, as if we were injected into a fast-play horror videogame towards the end. But outside of that, this brings nothing new to the table except for a “witch” that looks like a tall lanky monster from a Doom or Resident Evil first person shooter game—and with similar effects.
The original (and Book of Shadows) focused on the characters and their superstition turning them on each other and likewise turning to terror. Putative supernatural occurrences were suggested but not evidenced back in 1999. This 2016 film, however, was more akin to sprinting through the woods and an abandoned dilapidated house screaming “WIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIITCH IN THE WOODS” with a super shaky camera that captures occasional glimpses of terrors. Much as The Thing (2011), Star Wars Episode VII (2015), Jurassic World (2015), Cabin Fever (2016) and Ghostbusters (2016), we have yet another film that paints by the numbers of an overly familiar model pattern. And that model pattern was a successful one the we loved… but did anyone really want to see the investigators get lost, apparently hike a giant circle, and end up back at the campsite again? Did we need more sprinting while holding a flashlight-lit camera at high speeds in the woods? Did the creek need to disappear… again? Did we need to see another person standing in a dark cellar facing the wall? Probably not. But, again, despite being a mediocre film (in my opinion), it manages to be a quite entertaining movie experience (for me).
As it turns out, this redundant link is perhaps also the deepest aspect of the film–addressing the aspect of time distortion in the forest. Lots of theories out there, so we won’t discuss it here other than to say that many think this is the “same event” showing the “same character” in both movies. Think about it…if time passes differently in those woods, this is maybe possible depending on your rationale.
That’s not to say everything was replayed from what makes me now shutter to call “part 1.” There were new character elements (for otherwise underdeveloped characters), they forced more probable supernatural elements upon us sooner (rather than relying on mystery or possible hysteria for much of the running time), there was a shocking voodoo doll scene (with a back break akin to Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)), a completely disjointed implication of a parasite of some sort (with greater implications that I feel failed), some more clues to the component of time distortion (addressed in the other two films as well), and they made a bigger overblown deal out of the house (which was straight out of a videogame). But, like I said before, it still smelled of the original, and strongly so.
In the end I had fun watching this movie. It’s actually VERY exciting and entertaining if you don’t get caught up in aggravation—LOL. But I also enjoyed it much less after I left the theater and had time to reflect on it. Sigh.
Regardless of one’s enjoyment, I’d struggle to identify anything new that actually contributed to the 1999 story…other than that we got to “see” the Blair Witch and she looks like a starved, gangly-limbed videogame monster that was probably transported back to Earth after the reappearance of the Event Horizon (1997), the wrong turn to Silent Hill, or the incident at Raccoon City.
After seeing this I imagine you’ll want to see more witch movies. Maybe because you loved this above-discussed 2016 film or because you want a witch movie do-over to make up for that hot mess. So, now that the Blair Witch discussion has come to an end, here is a little witch movie guidance…
MORE WITCH MOVIES: Some excellent witch movies that actually feel like witch movies include Warlock (1989), The Witch (2016; podcast discussion) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Beautiful Creatures (2013) and The Woods (2006) may appeal to young adult audiences. But I would sooner direct you to Hocus Pocus (1993), The Witches (1990) and The Craft (1996). I’m leaving Harry Potter out of this discussion, by the way. Fantasy sorcery (Willow, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and wizardry (The Lord of the Rings) is to be considered its own thing entirely.
The campy The Kiss (1988), Spellbinder (1988), Necropolis (1987) and Cherry Tree (2015) are entertaining but bad. And speaking of campy, Superstition (1982) and The Haunting of Morella (1990) are allegedly witch movies but don’t feel like it. But even if you want a bad movie, definitely skip Witchcraft (1989) and all sequels.
The dark noir Lord of Illusions (1995) is intriguingly edgy and, while more a “magic movie” than a “witch movie,” it hits a lot of the same dark arcane notes. And, of course, The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) were awesomely stylized in their own unique ways despite never actually showing us a witch. Check out Pumpkinhead (1988) for a great depiction of a witch, though it’s not a “witch movie.” Meanwhile Deadtime Stories (1986) and The Theater Bizarre (2011) features a pretty cool witch short story, and The Pit and the Pendulum (1991) addresses witch trials.
Witches can come in so many flavors, can’t they? Lords of Salem (2013) and Mother of Tears (2007) deal with witches’ spirits in the form of dark ritual and possession. Quite the opposite, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), The Last Witch Hunter (2015; podcast discussion) and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) offer action and effects-driven popcorn fun—Season of the Witch (2011) attempted this, but failed miserably. But the witch from The Brothers Grimm (2005) was pretty cool.
Well that concludes today’s witch movie discussion. That is, of course, until they release The Blair Sasquatch! I totally think the story would make more sense if it was just some bigfoot making crude stick men and eating campers that nosily wander too far from the safety of their trails. That thing we saw for half a second at a time in the Blair Witch (2016) finale could have easily been an albino sasquatch, rendered almost completely ravenous, hairless and gaunt from the extreme malnutrition of having no campers to eat for 17 years (since 1999)! I’m just glad that poor crypto-critter finally got to eat something.