Once again college kids with video cameras march into the dark piney woods in search of something better left undisturbed. Unlike previous attempts to capture the lightning in a bottle that was the original BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, attempts that went down in flames, writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard have taken the found-footage format that was spawned a genre, for good and ill, and they have rediscovered just exactly what it was about it that scared the bejeezus out of us in the first place. Actually, with BLAIR WITCH, they’ve found a way to make it positively intriguing.
These aren’t just any random college kids who left footage behind after going into those woods. They are led by doughty James (James Allen McCune), who was only four when his sister, Heather disappeared after leading her own film crew into those woods to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch. James has never gotten over it, and when an online search turns up a DVR tape that may or may not be related to Heather’s disappearance, he becomes convinced that his sister is still alive after all these years. Documenting the expedition is Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who, like Heather did, sees an opportunity to ace a project for her film class. Rounding out the team is Paul (Brandon Scott), James’ lifelong pal and an ironically affable sceptic about the supernatural with, at least at first, a great deal of common sense, and Ashley (Corbin Reid) Paul’s girlfriend who prepares for their camping jaunt into the woods by getting a pedicure. Tagging along to make their own documentary are Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), an oddball couple collectively known as DarkMatter666 online, true believers in the Blair Witch, and the ones who made the discovery of the tape while doing their own investigation.
Exposition of the backstory is executed with precision, and is particularly well done, saving the most gruesome part of the legend of the Blair Witch for the requisite spooky story around the campfire their first night in the woods as hot dogs crackle in the flames, and suggestive comments are made about how Ashley chooses to consume hers. Hence they are well prepared, as are we, for the booming crashes that wake them all up from their sound sleep, and the disquieting selection of crude stick figures that suddenly festoon their campsite. The same crude stick figures that Heather and her crew encountered. We are also prepared for just how unprepared these kids are to be out in the wilderness, starting with Paul’s manly but futile attempts to pitch his tent. When all hell breaks loose, the cameras, in this case earpieces that leave the wearer free to run unencumbered for his or her life, capture the panic of our campers with jittery bits and pieces of the looming forest flashing across the screen.
In keeping with the spirit of the original, things take on a sense of unreality that is as much about the kids in question becoming more and more disoriented when a flashlight fails, or they sleep into the afternoon after a grueling hike, or a cut becomes infected and their rudimentary first-aid skills fail to recognize what should or shouldn’t be happening as a result. By the time they start doing the stupid things that people in horror films need to do in order to keep the action going, it’s a perfectly reasonable response to exhaustion and fear, not a necessary plot point to get out of the way.
The transition from set-up to terror is a gradual process, building to a crescendo of pure frenzied feral hysteria by actors who give visceral life to the terror of the unknown. Quick cuts of darkness, bright lights, and the dizzying swoops of the cameras are more effective than the traditional jump-and-scare techniques of lesser flicks. It also does the unthinkable and makes it work. During an intense sequence James stops Lisa, and forces to her breathe slowly in order to calm down. It’s not a lull, it’s a welcome respite from the vertiginous camera, and yet it’s also a moment of suspense, because they know and we know that they are not out of the woods yet, either literally or figuratively.
BLAIR WITCH sets a new standard for found-footage horror with a story that hews to the tropes of the original and yet is a fresh hell of imagination and primal fear.