Horror movies are supposed to be cathartic. In an age where we are living in fear everyday, with everything from terrorist threats to policy proposals from empathy free politicians causing widespread social anxiety, the supernatural and unrealistic threats in horror cinema are designed to release fear, not cause it. Director John Carpenter famously said that after seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, he went home and slept like a baby – after witnessing his fears in the flesh, he was no longer scared.
2016 is one of the finest years for horror cinema in my entire lifetime, if only because the genre no longer feels cathartic. Instead of releasing tension, it merely adds onto it. Following the existential satanic threat of The Witch, one of my favourite movies of the year, along comes Blair Witch, the long gestating sequel to the divisive 1999 found footage phenomenon. The film has been brought into existence by You’re Next/The Guest director Adam Wingard and his regular screenwriting collaborator Simon Barnett – and the ending result is not only a relief for those expecting a sequel to a horror classic to be disappointing, but it is without a doubt one of the bleakest, most depressing American genre films of all time.
Wingard has said in interviews that if the 1999 original was about being lost in the woods, his sequel (that disregards the existence of Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows) is nothing more than a chase movie. Expect a satanic, body-horror remake of Apocalypto, shot in a found footage style and you are close to imagining the twisted delights in store. If what you loved about The Blair Witch Project was the ambiguity, then you may have a hard time embracing Wingard’s film. He makes everything that was implied in the former film a devastating reality, with plenty of occult twists and turns to ensure the end result is darker and more pant-wettingly terrifying than the original.
I was never a fan of The Blair Witch Project, even though I appreciate the positive impact it had on low budget independent cinema. I found it to be nothing more than a precursor to the two worst sub-genres in modern cinema; the irritatingly twee mumblecore genre and the migraine-inducing found footage genre. I have enjoyed a couple of found footage films here and there, Troll Hunter and Chronicle are both minor masterpieces in a genre seemingly designed to not create any, but Blair Witch is the first time I actually forgot I was watching a found footage movie. As the film increases the panic from the halfway point, the POV style increasingly feels like we are staring directly into the face of death, as opposed to watching some berk with a camcorder mumble their way through the woods.
Seventeen years after a group of amateur filmmakers disappeared in the Maryland Black Woods, a group of college students and local occult-enthusiasts head back into the woods to find out where they disappeared after seeing the mysterious footage. The search is being documented by film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez), as she focuses on James (James Allen McCune), whose sister Heather hasn’t been since again since her trip to the woods. Shit goes down, obviously.
Adam Wingard is the perfect directorial fit for this material. Before making the aforementioned cult classics You’re Next and The Guest, he made a name for himself with several low budget horror movies in an even more obscure sub-genre defined as “mumble-Gore”. For the opening half hour, Blair Witch is completely unbearable, to the extent it felt like Wingard had forgotten he had developed as a filmmaker and had retreated back to making semi-threatening low budget movies with a thinly characterised cast. If people walk out of Blair Witch (and they will – it’ll be one of the year’s most divisive works), the mass exodus is likely to happen in the opening half hour. It is ponderously dull, increasingly adding plenty of visual gimmicks that make the found footage nature of the movie all the more distracting.
Of course, I was wrong to underestimate what was in retrospect a slow burning opening. After You’re Next revamped the slasher movie as a satire on privileged rich kids and The Guest transformed Terminator-style fare into a commentary on PTSD, the writer/director duo of Wingard and Barnett have repeatedly proved to have far more interesting tricks up their sleeve. After all, if we are watching unedited documentary footage shot in chronological order as the film wants us to believe, it has every right to have a dull beginning. Patience is a virtue, as it is only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.
The characters don’t truly become fleshed out until they get trapped in a waking nightmare; at the start, they are merely introduced as people with dual obsessions with the paranormal and capturing as much banal footage as possible. In these introductory moments, Wingard makes a habit of showing us how much technology has advanced in the 17 years since the inaugural Project. Multiple camcorders, bluetooth POV camera headsets and even a giant drone camera are all introduced in an opening act that feels equally like an advert for the sale at Curry’s PC World.
Luckily, the paranoid tension soon seeps in and these boring millennial characters soon become interesting. To talk more about the time spent in the woods and all the occult elements introduced, that double down on the threat of the original, would ruin the waking nightmare that follows. Barnett’s screenplay frequently makes fun of the lazy “jump scare” formula of modern horror movies, as the only times general audiences are likely to feel terrified are via characters appearing in frame suddenly during pitch black silence (one character even says “we need to stop doing this!”), when the real tension is clearly being created elsewhere. Like The Witch earlier this year, the occult threat is so deeply engrained in satanic mythology, you’ll need to bring prior knowledge with you to truly get why the real horrors portrayed are occurring – and why they are so fucking unnerving.
Don’t be fooled by the cheap jump scares and the gimmicky, outdated found footage format: this is horror cinema at its most intelligent. It stays true to the mythology of the Blair Witch franchise, whilst expanding upon it and transforming entirely into a waking nightmare. The bleak third act suggests this will be as hated by general audiences as the original. But for genre fans wanting a break from the tired “quiet-quiet-BANG” formula of The Conjuring and other jump scare horror efforts, Blair Witch is exactly the movie you’ve been hoping to see.