Directed by Adam Wingard
Opens September 16
In The Blair Witch Project, 1999’s most unlikely box-office smash, three documentarians entered Maryland’s accursed Black Hills forest with just a few cameras (Hi-8 and 16mm) and some sound equipment—of course, the film students succumbed to unspeakable terrors, though their electronics survived to bear teasingly partial witness. The amateur filmmakers at the heart of the new Blair Witch, an attempt to overwrite Joe Berlinger’s studio-recut Book of Shadows (2000) as a direct sequel to the now-seminal found-footage fiction, are both less skilled and much better equipped, beneficiaries of the ever-narrowing distinction between consumer- and professional-grade gear. Thus Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a budding documentarian, and James (James Allen McCune), the brother of the original film’s ill-fated Heather, lead the charge back to those same spooky woods, packing a full arsenal of state-of-the-art wireless tools: wide-range walkie-talkies, GPS-enabled earpiece cameras, and—most dad-gizmo of all—a drone.
Never mind that James, who makes pointed references to Heather’s “footage” throughout, has himself essentially seen The Blair Witch Project—he’s somehow still convinced his sibling’s alive, and that it’s a good idea to go looking for her. James’s loyalty might remain a bit puzzling to the viewer, considering the millennial could scarcely have known his sister (according to the timeline of the series mythology, she disappeared in 1994, as a full-grown woman), but it seems to have sufficiently moved his compatriots. Lisa, who’s making a short subject about James’s search, is not the only one to follow him into the forest: James’s childhood buddy Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend, Ashley (Corbin Reid), tag along, as do a pair of self-proclaimed local-legend experts (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) with whom James has been corresponding over the internet.
The cast acquits itself naturally enough for the faux-vérité proceedings, but director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, longtime collaborators heretofore best known for 2011 breakout You’re Next, don’t quite succeed in bringing any of these characters to life. Wingard seems to have expended a lot more energy in devising the film’s marvelously glitchy visual scheme, the unintended result being that it’s the gadgets, and not the people themselves, that often seem to be truly imperiled here. (After all, the found-footage formal conceit demands any and all recording-equipment damage be front and center on-screen.) Once the sky darkens permanently and the witching hour’s finally at hand, the drone crash-lands in the trees, the walkie-talkies begin to malfunction, and the video begins to routinely erupts in abstract color-blocks, signaling the digital injuries sustained by all that fearful tossing about. Throughout, wind, rain, and less identifiable thunderings also buffet the handheld cameras’ built-in mics, as if we’re hearing them erode before our very ears. As for James and company, sticks and stones most assuredly do break their bones. It’s a hallmark of this not-particularly-scary film’s failure, though, that the blows to the electronics feel somehow more visceral.