The hype was high: a Blair Witch sequel that, according to early reports from critics, reinvents the found- footage genre. Similar hype surrounded Wes Craven’s 1994 genre-busting Scream, which proved influential for horror filmmakers to come because, at that point, the slasher flick was relying on the same tired tropes. But in fact, Blair Witch doesn’t reinvent the already worn-out horror subgenre; rather, it pays imaginative homage to the trend-setting original, which kicked off the found-footage craze in 1999.
Unlike others of that ilk, which devote an excruciating amount of time to backstory, director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S) and screenwriter Simon Barrett are quick to throw us into the action. James (James Allen McCune), the brother of the ill-fated Heather from the first film, discovers a video of her on YouTube and believes she is still alive. He and some friends (Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, and Callie Hernandez) then venture into the Black Hill Woods where Heather disappeared to find out what happened.
They gain confidence when a pair of locals (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) offer to show them around the woods, but once the group crosses into the woods, they meet a terrifying force that takes various invisible forms.
The film spends much of its first third exploring the friendships among the characters, who are presented as being likable, motivated people who have justification for snooping around in the woods. At first it’s all cheap jump scares, pranks among the protagonists. The comforting sense of relief following one of these episodes does not last, but you knew that.
In the seventeen years between the two Blair Witch films (I do not count Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows) several films have emerged as game changers, throttling this subgenre’s manipulative modus operandi almost to a pulp. But Wingard’s film, while not a game changer, makes a solid case that the found-footage film is not only alive but worthy of further exploration—something Wes Craven proved with Scream, whose tongue-in-cheek jab at the genre became suddenly and shockingly violent in its final set piece.
To Blair Witch's great credit, it actually answers some of those questions that nag at us while watching found-footage movies (“Why are you still recording during a killing?” “Wouldn’t it be easier to drop the camera and run?”), and it draws credibility from its characters’ knowledge of recording devices, like ear-piece cameras and drones, and how the camera shifts to being unacknowledged once the terror ensues.
Several scenes will have audiences wide-eyed with fear, just as the characters are, and one scene in particular will make more claustrophobic viewers look away. One of the ways Wingard does burst open the found-footage genre is that Blair Witch exists almost in real time. We are caught in the middle of the horrific events, and time does not jump—though point of view often does. Camping in the woods has become terrifying once again. Thanks, Adam.