Around the time a possessed twig protrudes from inside a woman’s leg in Blair Witch, it’s clear this would-be reboot of a horror classic has badly lost its way.
In The Blair Witch Project, the Sundance sensation that became one of the most profitable indies ever, there was no image more disturbing than a man standing silently in a corner. The movie’s atmosphere of suggestion and dread was so powerful that a pile of rocks could turn your stomach. It may be a punchline to many now, but in dark, expectant theaters in August 1999, The Blair Witch Project was a true phenomenon—an utterly unique experience that inspired fierce debate and enduring nightmares.
Seventeen years later, Blair Witch features flying tents, cursed drones, claustrophobic tunnels, howling coyotes, and I’m sorry to report, a real-life Blair Witch. It does not, however, feature a single good scare. Never mind atmosphere: Blair Witch can barely keep its characters occupied long enough to kill them.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At first, the new movie seemed like an unexpected gift. Shot under the working title The Woods, the movie was revealed as the long-rumored third Blair Witch film at a San Diego Comic-Con panel in July. (The second, 2000’s Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, is a deranged novelty but is widely despised by fans.) The studio declined to bring back Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, the directors of The Blair Witch Project, but replaced them with screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, the neo-genre savants behind You’re Next and The Guest. Their mission would be tricky—weighing fan service against the demands of a new generation brought up on maximalist supernatural thrillers and gory shockers. But the savvy pair, with their homage-filled but resolutely scary movies, seemed ideally suited to reanimate the franchise’s old bones.
Blair Witch expands the first film’s group of three doomed filmmakers to six, including a brother (James Allen McCune from The Walking Dead and Shameless) of one of the original victims. We once again follow them after the fact via found footage, cams shaky and reliably askew. A local couple lures the brother and three friends to the Maryland woods by claiming to have a new video of the lost house where the original film concluded. Despite their Confederate flags and curious manners, the couple convinces the crew to let them tag along into the woods. As the sorry six-some enters the forest, Wingard’s camera lingers on the cars we know they’ll never see again, the last inspired shot in the movie.
Once in the woods, Blair Witch comes undone faster than its characters. Barrett and Wingard slavishly reprise the beats of the original movie and suffer gravely by comparison. Disturbing rustles in the night become thundering cataclysms, thanks to overcooked sound design. High-end digital cameras give the footage a sleeker sheen, but relentless artificial “interruptions” in the video—designed to mimic the original’s craggy reels—undercut the intensity they seem intended to build. Even potentially clever upgrades to the found-footage conceit, like a drone that hovers ominously over the forest, never quite find a purpose. By the time the characters again start shrieking over DIY stick figures left around their campsite like air fresheners, we begin to wonder: Is that all there is?
In movies like The Guest, Barrett and Wingard established genre bona fides that showed a deep knowledge of what makes these films tick. Their thrillers pay reverent tribute to what came before—The Guest recalls the zombie-soldier thrillers of the post-Vietnam years—but they also bring fresh, primitive energy to familiar horror setups. (One fabulously executed sequence in that movie, involving a gun transaction gone wrong, instantly raises the stakes with terrifying efficiency.) Where was that ingenuity on Blair Witch? The body horror and halfhearted jump scares suggest a lack of ideas, and that turns to desperation when we get a glimpse of the real, live Blair Witch. Really? The Blair Witch Project, of course, summoned its power from how little it revealed—the horrible possibilities were far worse than anything we actually saw. This time around, we see the sad, gangly creature in all her glory, looking like a washed-out digital castoff scraped together from the graveyard of forgotten movie monsters. She could not be less scary. That she’s here at all is a failure of Barrett and Wingard’s imaginations—and an insulting disregard for our own.