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Courtesy of Vertigo Entertainment

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September 22, 2016

Blair Witch Casts a Comic Spell

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For a sequel to a film that is credited with popularizing the entire “found footage” genre, Blair Witch (2016) is quite underwhelming. In the film, James (James Allen McCune) is looking for his sister Heather (the main female character from The Blair Witch Project) in the Black Hills Forest in Maryland. Like the first film, this has also been made in the “found footage” format, which can lead to some creative shots. I’m not a big fan of this style of filmmaking, but a good example can be found in the Paranormal Activity movies. The technology used in the cinematography, and how we witness the paranormal, is what makes the films unique. Blair Witch does take advantage of the genre, utilizing cameras you put in your ear, a camera attached to a tree and a drone with a GoPro. This being said, the presentation of these shots was executed poorly.

There are many instances of camera-work that make no sense, and the director missed opportunities for creative shots with unusual details. For example, there should definitely be hair visible in the shots that come from the earpiece camera. The only camera in black and white in this movie is the one attached to the tree, and I think this was only used because they used black and white in the first film. Also, I want to note that a drone was an incredibly dumb decision for a trip through thick woods. There were some mistakes made that were pretty obvious to anyone who has experience flying a drone.

The main characters, James, Peter (Brandon Scott), Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), are terrible people. They also represent the very obvious horror movie character tropes: The smart one, the black guy, the innocent girl and the fourth one. They’re jerks to the locals who help them, and they’re jerks to each other. The forced, random filming without permission, as seen in other films from this genre, makes the characters seem immature. The locals are the only relatable characters, but the audience is supposed to fear them. I, however, don’t like the main characters and only feel for the locals, so this fails miserably. Ashley has a rip-off of Alien forming in her foot that goes nowhere. Something is seen moving about, but the culprit (that causes her to pull something out of her leg later in a cringing scene) only causes some pain. I wanted it to take control of her, pop out or do something worthwhile.

If it has anything, though, this film has exposition. I swear, most of the movie is dedicated to exposition. They explain what they’re doing, who the Blair Witch is, the stories behind her, etc. The other film was a documentary on the Blair Witch, but they don’t have as much exposition as they do here. That is because the writers of first film knew to leave key elements a mystery so as to add to the scare factor. Everything doesn’t need to be analyzed. Let the viewer digest what they see.

The opening of the movie is just filler, with random scenes that are supposed to create character but rather just introduce the people who are obviously doomed from the start. The film is pretty disappointing if you’ve seen the first Blair Witch Project since it repeats ideas, shots and plot-points. In this one, they just have more gadgets and walk along with the locals until they are cast aside. There are a couple of new additions that I do like. First, the movie experiments with time through endless nights, as the characters awake at 2 p.m. with it still as pitch black as at 7 a.m. As in the original, the characters walk in circles. But, via the drone footage, the audience also gets to see that the woods are endless with no defining features to navigate. The witch’s stick figures play a bigger role this time around, when Ashley grabs one with one, snaps it in half, and she snaps in half. The last part that I like was a scene where Lisa tries to get out of a hole through a tight tunnel. Her struggling to squeeze through gave me a little claustrophobia.

A big downside of this film is that it kept making me realize how much better The Blair Witch Project was. I wasn’t a big fan of it before, but this film made me appreciate it. At least I cared about those characters. The single camera created more realism in the original. People were fooled into thinking the film was real, but I can’t imagine that happening here. This film even had the lame ambience soundtrack that sounded identical to the one from Paranormal Activity where a low bass was heard before anything scary happened. The original was ambiguous and left the audience wondering whether the events were a result of the Blair Witch or in the heads of the panicked protagonists. This film was definitely insinuating that the witch caused everything.

In the end, I was left with this burning question: why was this film even made? It has been 16 years since Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (the last sequel that was worse than this), and no one was demanding another. Adding James as Heather’s brother who finally decides to find his sister is a forced storyline, especially since he didn’t do much to look for her in the 17 years she’s been gone. I’m sure he would have had some leads after all these years since people were aware of her Blair Witch documentary. His motivation to go to the Black Hills Forest is that he thinks he sees his sister in a blurry still in a video. This reason is incredibly weak.

This film would have been stronger as a parody of the Blair Witch Project, rather than as a horror sequel. I found myself unintentionally laughing at scenes but also laughing at all the intentionally funny jokes. This director does a great job of making the audience laugh, and should consider producing dark comedy or horror parodies. Unfortunately, any of the funny moments stop about halfway through the film. Some of the jokes come from the reactions of people to odd things the others say or do, and I enjoyed all of them. I wanted more situational humor! I want a parody director, Adam Wingard! Someone who makes stuff joking like like this movie’s (serious) ending.

Spoilers! Skip to the next paragraph! So, after James leaves Peter to die and then runs through the woods after his sister, we finally see the Blair Witch. That’s right! We see her! And what does she look like? The aliens from Signs. Okay. So, the Blair Witch all this time was an alien? What?!? She’s supposed to be the ghost of a witch who was hung from trees. But, she looks like a generic alien, and there’s even a scene where there’s a great deal of light outside as if a ship lands. WTF? The ending rips off Raiders of the Lost Ark where the witch can only kill them if they look at her, and they’re all idiots enough to look at her for one reason or another. This happens after they redo the most iconic shot from the original Blair Witch Project, which again makes you wonder why you’re not watching that movie.

So, it’s a pretty weak sequel. Even as a stand-alone film, it makes little sense. But, it would have been more enjoyable on its own since I wouldn’t have constantly been reminded that the first film existed and had a better-executed story. There are some good ideas, but they don’t balance out in the end with the bore the film became. It should just be a parody or a nice dark comedy. If this director ain’t going to make it happen, I will. Time to write the next logical sequel: Blair Witch: The Musical!

Trip Hastings is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at gh357@cornell.edu. 

  • ARG

    Thanks for the review. I just finished watching this, and agree with most of what you said. I am highly disappointed about the lack of originality in the new story line. I also concur that the reason for this trip into the woods was far fetched and weak, though the endless night was a nice touch. Finally – I agree that the actual “witch” once revealed was not too scary once the alien resemblances were revealed – including her ability to create the white light.

    My only difference of opinion was with your impression of the characters. Of course it is easy to have no pity for Peter after he acted like an ass to the locals. or for Jake because he was just a weak character in general and didn’t really add much to the movie. But I definitely felt bad for Ashley and Lisa! Ashley basically tagged along for moral support, got injured early on, became severely ill, and couldn’t get her boyfriend to agree to take her home. She was left sick in the tent for days due to the endless night, and treated as more like a nuisance by the others. She thought her boyfriend was dead, ended up in the woods alone with a raging infection and high fever, had to pull something ominous out of her own bloody leg in an attempt to survive, then was pulled off to her death after falling several hundred feet out of a tree. I really felt bad for her. Then Lisa, who went through more than anyone else while alive, for me is the only thing that made the movie scary.

    As for the locals, I found them both to be the most terrible people in the movie. They lied about knowing their location, led the group into uncharted territory, then tried to scare them on the first night. They claimed it was because they needed help uncovering the evil in the woods, but that was not believable to me. Nothing was mentioned about the blair witch affecting them directly, so there didn’t seem to be any real motive for their interest. Their choice in music on the drive to the woods made it seem like they liked scary stuff and were just tagging along for their own amusement. The female who was split in two – well, thats what you get from a witch when you try to pose as her by scaring the others into thinking she made the stick dolls (night one).

    Anyhow I was just curious if I may be missing something – the only part of the movie I didn’t understand was Blaine. Was he being controlled by the witch the whole time? Even before they left for the woods? He said some weird stuff insinuating that he has to do what the witch says, and after all he did have the original footage in his possession. OR was he supposed to be the man they discussed in the beginning – the one who killed the kids? I couldn’t for the life of me make out what he was saying about the 5th one, or why he told Lisa she looked exactly like he remembered her – as though years had passed.