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Friday, September 16, 2016

REVIEW: BLAIR WITCH mostly does what a sequel should


Honestly, you don't really need to read the reviews to figure out if you'll be a fan of Blair Witch, which is technically the third in a series but is basically a de facto sequel to the 1999 found footage horror film that was made on a shoestring budget and went on to rake in $248 million worldwide. Your best litmus test for Blair Witch is how much you enjoyed the first film, The Blair Witch Project - beyond the viral marketing, originality of concept, or cultural influence it had, but how much you'd enjoy sitting down and watching it today. If you were a fan of that experience, you'll likely enjoy this one.

The gist of this film: it uses the found footage angle again, this time featuring footage of James, younger brother to The Blair Witch Project's Heather, who thinks he's spotted video footage of his sister, still alive, in those woods. A group of friends joins him to see whether she's still there and what happened to her in the years since. The group, of course, becomes lured into the same trap Heather and her group encountered in the first film, fighting for their lives to escape. 

Sometimes Blair Witch feels, in fact, a bit like a reboot of the original as much as it feels like a sequel. Some of the broad strokes of the plot are the same, but that's not really why it feels like a reboot (in fact, the characters all feel pretty different). It feels like a reboot because it captures the feeling of the original film, pressing the same notes of dread. While diving into that feeling, this movie also does a little bit to expand on the original mythos here and there, mostly in the form of the where instead of the who. In Blair Witch, the woods themselves, rather than what's lurking inside them, feel like the biggest threat. If you've read House of Leaves, you'll understand how the house  felt like a menacing character, constantly changing shape and endangering the people within it. The woods in Blair Witch serve a similar purpose, enveloping those inside by distorting reality and time. 

It also, in spite of the bigger budget, relies on the shaky cam method of the original, which may actually be a turn off for those with motion sensitivity (one of the people with me almost vomited mid-way through the film, only making it to the end after downing a Dramamine). And my biggest criticism of the film is the 10 minutes it spends somewhere in the mid-to-back half of the film where characters are just running, running, and doing more running. Motion sickness aside, it looks as unclear and as shaky as you'd expect, and at a certain point I began to feel my mind wander, wondering when we'd get back into visibility mode, where I'd feel like an engaged viewer again. 

The performances here are fine, mostly good-not-great. There aren't as many distinct character moments as there were in the original, and the two characters playing locals who join James' search felt a little too cartoony at times. Brandon Scott's portrayal of Peter, James' childhood friend, is probably the standout of the bunch, adding some much needed levity. 

While The Blair Witch Project suffered a little bit from hype and the parodies that followed it, it was on the whole a very original and influential film that did a lot with very little. Blair Witch is certainly not groundbreaking and will probably be less remembered as a result, but it does a great job of cloning and elaborating on the spirit of the original. Use that first film as your litmus test and let that help you decide whether this one is worth catching. 

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