- THROUGH THE WOODS AGAIN: "Blair Witch" takes us back to well-trodden trails.
You want to feel old? Recall that "The Blair Witch Project" came out in 1999, before even a third of Americans had cell phones. That was back when getting lost in the woods meant your ass was lost in the woods. And high-end video cameras, small enough certainly to fit in your hand, were still shooting grainy, low-res clips that wouldn't pass muster these days as dash-cam footage. No one had yet pulled off the found-footage scare flick with anywhere quite the raw verite that the summer sneak hit brought. Made for $60,000, it grossed almost a quarter-billion at the box office and ensured that as the years went by, we'd be subjected to at least a couple of shakily shot horror flicks a year premised on the idea that teens (usually) served as their own self-aware documentarians during some horrible adventure or other. Typically the movies are cheap, poorly made, haphazardly plotted, and yet — as every target-demo teen now has cheap cameras — they continue to earn back their returns, ensuring the legacy of "The Blair Witch Project" is going to be hard to escape.
A flooded market ensures that name recognition can be hard to come by, and outside of the "Paranormal Activity" series (six films, $900 million in worldwide rake), there's still no bigger name than "Blair Witch." It, too, is a fairly cheap set of thrills, updated for the now: earpiece cameras, digital single-lens reflex cameras that shoot video, a damn quadcopter drone with what looks like a GoPro on board. We pick up firmly in the YouTube era when a brother of one of the original doomed woods-traipsing kids comes across a shard of video from the site of his sister's disappearance. He rounds up three friends, enlists the dude who found and uploaded the video (a goth redneck internet jerk) plus that dude's girlfriend, and heads out to camp and search for ... maybe his sister? It's not really clear what he expects to find that the search parties 15 years ago missed, but whatevs, you gotta get six young people into the woods somehow, right?
Director Adam Wingard took to Twitter after the movie's ho-hum debut weekend to crack wise about the mix of low receipts and blah reviews. You have to wonder what people expect out of a sequel like this; the worst thing you can say about "Blair Witch" is that it's about what you'd imagine would be here. The second-worst thing you can say is the first half of the movie drags, and that it's a formula that still feels pretty stale, no matter the tech updates. The third-worst thing is that the bump-in-the-night format means they can rely mostly on spooky sound effects and on-camera hysterics from the cast to move the scares along. (To pull out another 1990s deep cut, let's remember Bart Simpson's criticism of Poe from the first "Treehouse of Horror" episode: "You know what would've been scarier than nothing? Anything!")
That said: Damn, if you want a stressful afternoon at the movies, this is it. Your hapless videographers do get deeply lost in the woods, '90s style, and find that they're being stalked by — well, we're never really sure, but maybe that is part of the allure. Night falls, as night tends to, and then it doesn't lift. Our heroes are then stuck in the dark, navigating only by flashlight, down winding forest paths and through haunted labyrinthine corridors, camera shaking, circular light bobbing, teasing whatever might be lurking in the periphery. The first-person vantage works to freak you right out when the dark closes in. The real revelation of "The Blair Witch Project" was its ending — perfectly teased, perfectly timed, 10 of the scariest seconds in the history of movies, if it caught you right. "Blair Witch" can't stick the landing quite so cleanly, though that's no real slight. Nor, truth told, is the saggy plot or generally derivative formula at play here. The only critical review you need is that of grinding your nails into the arm of the theater seat, and the fellow audience member somewhere who can be heard even over the din of the action, yelling, "Nope! Nope! Nope!" The format may be old, but that pit in your stomach keeps caving in anew.