While not especially scary, 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” understood what makes the found-footage genre work. By limiting cheap jump scares and over-the-top set pieces, it created an atmosphere of dread that effectively got under the audience’s skin. It may feel antiquated by today’s standards, but it never pushed itself past the logical limits that it established.
That was 17 years ago, and the time of the found-footage has come and gone. It died somewhere around the fourth “Paranormal Activity,” and movies like “Apollo 18” and “The Devil Inside” dug the grave. The decision to reboot the “Blair Witch” franchise so long after the found-footage fad passed is only one of many puzzling aspects of this new iteration.
“Blair Witch” follows James (James Allen McCune), brother to the original film’s Heather, as he and his friends head to the Black Hills in search of Heather after new footage of the original documentary emerges online. The group meets up with two creepy locals who posted the video, and the search party heads into the woods.
The rest of the movie follows a pattern similar to the original, as uncanny happenings occur when night falls and delirium sets in during the day. New twists are put on the formula in an attempt to keep things fresh, but none of them are particularly effective. For the most part, they work against the tactics that made the original unnerving.
Like too many recent horror films, “Blair Witch” relies on jump scares as its main tactic. Rather than trust its naturally scary environment, the movie feels the need to wear down its audience with unnecessary loud noises and high-concept turns in the narrative that betray the framework laid out in the original. Even worse, it undermines the terrifying unknown of the witch. “The Blair Witch Project” was so scary and, in a sense, realistic because the viewer never gets to see this unrelenting demonic force. Its reboot lacks that subtlety.
And despite its arrival after a slew of found-footage films, it still makes simple mistakes like the phantom camera. In the beginning, “Blair Witch” introduces a ridiculous number of cameras being used, presumably in an attempt to explain all the unrealistic shots throughout, but there are still moments where a character either couldn’t possibly be shooting it or wouldn’t be, given the circumstances.
Finally, “Blair Witch” falls victim to one of the most classic horror tropes: Its characters are just dumb. None of them are compelling, and deaths don’t carry weight for the viewer. Even James’s motivation is paper-thin. New footage was found of his sister, but that still would have been 20 years prior in the movie’s chronology. Yet he decides to drag his friends with him into the same woods his sister disappeared in. It reeks of narrative convenience and once again undermines the realism that its originator held.
As a whole, “Blair Witch” feels misguided. It’s loud and dumb, the exact type of horror that “The Blair Witch Project” subverted upon its release. Even with its occasional scares, most are predictable and not nearly as scary as they should be. Sloppy pacing and annoying editing just add to its issues. Had it been released eight or nine years early, maybe it could have found its niche. But it’s 2016. “Paranormal Activity” isn’t even trying anymore.