If Blair Witch is a subpar film (it is), it’s not for lack of trying to be a good one. Writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard try to give the characters an emotional connection to the events that happen, lend logic to the technology of found footage movies, and clearly had a better horror movie in mind by the time the third act arrives. Unfortunately, there’s a hefty amount of non-scary, meandering, normalcy building that has to occur during the beginning and middle of found footage movies before anything can get good. By that point, as is the case here, it’s usually too late.
We see this aforementioned normalcy building as Witch starts off how these movies often do. We have to believe these were normal people doing normal things before shit got real, to make the “this tape was recovered” angle seem more legit. As a result, we see the gang of good-looking-twenty-somethings bantering and getting ready to do a very dumb thing: go off into supposedly haunted woods to find out what happened to James’s (James Allen McCune) sister, who so happened to be the very unlucky girl in the original Blair Witch Project. The gang goes off into the woods and to their doom, but not before checking off all things that will remind us they’re normal people just like you and me camping in the woods.
They walk trails, film nature, walk across the river, laugh about how stupid the legends of the woods are, set up camp and then realize camping kind of sucks. Then the loud bangs and creaks start to happen as the first night comes. In the morning they realize maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, and then start to head back home. But, to their dismay (and ours) they discover they cannot, in fact, find their way home. The original Blair Witch did the same thing but with more psychological tension involved. Here, we can name off the plot points while not being scared in the process, and minus any meaningful inter-character conflict.
This would all be okay if there was any tension in the actual scares. Something a great found footage movie, Paranormal Activity, understood is that what’s scary about the night is the night itself, not exactly what’s lurking in the night. The quiet creaks, silent atmosphere, the “anything can be out there” tension. All of that is what makes the darkness terrifying. Witch, however, tries to scare the audience with high-volume scares. I mean that in the most literal of ways, as every “scary moment” is the result of a loud crash in the woods or animals howling. The progression seems so out of place and over-the-top given how calm everything is during the day scenes that come before and after.
However, these aggressive attempts at horror actually do begin to function by the final act, where the movie then begins to show its innovations, credit of which goes to both Barrett and Wingard. Unique, unforeseen elements are established to give the proceedings a greater sense of mystery and dread, like when two previously exiled characters show up, disheveled and looking rather hobo-ish, claiming they’ve been trapped in the woods for about five days, when they were in fact last seen earlier in the day.
And when the action picks up this is where the advanced technology of the cameras actually becomes a bit of fresh air, as opposed to a mind-boggling nuisance like in other found footage movies. Having the cameras attached to the characters’ ears (picture a Bluetooth headset) injects a bit of logic into the whole “running around holding a camera” shtick that has not been seen in similar films. The reason why everything in front of them is being filmed as they barrel and scream through the woods makes sense because the camera is literally strapped on to their bloody faces. Gone is the hilariously stupid image of someone holding the camera up as they run around screaming and crying so that anyone watching later can see why they were, in fact, screaming and crying. I blame the selfie generation.
Scares even start to become a thing as the action picks up, as the entire third act is a relentless, madcap fright fest in the dark woods. To some it may not be that much different than other horror movies that resemble action movies in their last act, but there’s a certain depth to the movies mythos that can’t help but be palpable. It’s like going into that abandoned house at the end of your street that you heard belonged to a guy that used to stuff dead rabbits into his victim’s chest. The aura of everything said to have happened there is what causes that sense of dread in your bowels.
The same goes for Blair Witch, a movie that builds up the cursed reputation of the woods only to unleash its wrath in the end. Even the creepy, run-down house is here, fit with boarded up windows, ripped-up wallpaper and tiny hand prints on the walls, indicating that it may have been home to some very disobedient children once upon a time. The house is the most interesting character in the whole movie, with its twisting hallways and endless supply of doors that can lead anywhere, which allows the dirty, grotesque monster to dart from room to room. Frankly the movie may have been better had it all taken place inside this horrifying structure, more and more of its mysteries unfolding as time goes on.
But what we see of it is at least enough to end the movie on a high note. Sadly, the high note itself is only enough to lift the whole movie to slightly above-mediocre status. Witch simply spends too much time not being much of anything to be worth getting to the nerve-racking finale, a finale that shows off the director and writer’s true talents. They are both extremely talented individuals who are totally capable of subverting the genre, but too much of this movie plays it too safe before being comfortable enough to go balls out. To be fair, with these guys, I have confidence that’s not a mistake they’ll make twice.