In 1999, The Blair Witch Project terrified audiences with an ingenious marketing campaign that convinced moviegoers the shaky, handheld footage on the big screen was authentic, and three college students had actually disappeared while filming a documentary in the Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville, Maryland. Shot on a budget of only $60,000, the unprecedented hype catapulted the film to a worldwide gross of $248 million, and cemented The Blair Witch Project as a landmark genre entry whose influence would be felt for years to come.
17 years after Heather Donahue and her friends wandered into the forest in search of the ghost of Elly Kedward (and 16 years after the dreadful sequel, Book of Shadows, of which we’ll not speak again), director Adam Wingard is taking audiences back to the woods with Blair Witch, a follow-up to the original film which finds James (James Allen McCune) – who was 4 years old when his older sister disappeared in the wilderness – rallying a group of friends to reopen the search when a video discovered near Burkittville seems to indicate that Heather may still be alive.
Along for the journey are childhood pal Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), as well as Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a student filmmaker who wants to document the search for her thesis project, and who shows up with an impressive array of equipment including GPS-equipped earpiece cameras and a drone she can pilot from her smartphone. They’re far better equipped for this excursion than the original film’s trio, and with a pair of local reinforcements (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) acting as their guides, there shouldn’t be much to worry about… right?
Things start to get spooky when the group sets up camp for the night, and Wingard crafts a tense sequence that serves up a couple of solid frights while sowing the seeds of mistrust among the party, some of whom may have ulterior motives for this trip. Tempers flare, insults are hurled, and the search is ultimately called off as everyone elects to return home – but when a full day of walking finds them back at their campsite from the night before, James and his friends begin to wonder if the legends are true after all, and if the witch is lurking somewhere just beyond the light of the campfire.
Blair Witch hews closely to the structure of its predecessor, spending most its first half establishing the various relationship dynamics (and helpfully recounting the mythology for newcomers, or for those who may have forgotten the stories of Elly Kedward and Rustin Parr). Most of the early scares come courtesy of the film’s absolutely stellar sound design: as James and his friends huddle in their tents, they hear twigs snapping, leaves rustling, and unknown creatures howling in the distance. The combination of surround sound and close-quarters camera work make these moments feel incredibly claustrophobic, and Wingard builds tension to great effect.
The first hour falls victim to an over-reliance on jump scares, and there are some unintentionally funny moments that detract from the eerie outdoor atmosphere, but those shortcoming are easy to forgive thanks to the film’s final 30 minutes. This is where Blair Witch really shines, taking the building blocks of the 1999 entry and expanding on them in clever ways. Those creepy stick-figure ornaments that appear hung from the trees in the middle of the night have a very sinister purpose (skip the film’s trailer if you don’t want it spoiled), and Rustin Parr’s insistence that one of his victims always stand in the corner is given some additional context during Blair Witch‘s heart-pounding climax.
Wingard and his longtime writing partner Simon Barrett have done what many would have believed impossible, breathing new life into a dormant franchise and using an overplayed concept to show us something we haven’t seen before. Blair Witch certainly isn’t the most original horror offering in recent memory – that’s the nature of sequels – but Wingard creates a worthy sequel by blending his unique sensibilities with a reverence for the source material that pays homage while forging its own path.