Posted by: themoviecheese | September 21, 2016

“Blair Witch” (2016) Review

Blair Witch (2016) reviewed by Tom

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A few months ago, horror fans everywhere were excited to learn that The Woods – the mysterious “lost in the woods”-style horror film that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett had been working on for a number of years – was actually a sequel to the most successful found footage horror film of all time: The Blair Witch Project. Both Wingard and Barrett have made huge names for themselves in the world of horror thanks to their work on titles such as The Guest, Your Next and some of the VHS segments. It stands to reason that they should surely be the perfect duo to revisit the found footage film that started it all (some would say Cannibal Holocaust started the genre, but I would argue Blair Witch Project is the film that really steered the genre into the mainstream).

The Blair Witch project single handedly revolutionised film making, making $250,000,000 worldwide from a $50,000 budget thanks to a genius marketing scheme that genuinely fooled people into thinking the film was real. It kick started an entirely new film making mantra that you could make a film on a shoe string budget and still make a sizeable profit providing you really worked a great deal on its marketing. The film would go on to be one of the scariest films ever made in the eyes of many (including this reviewer). A year later, the first sequel for the film (Book of Shadows) was released, and it was…well…not brilliant. Ditching the found footage aspect in favour of something more standard in format, the film was directed by seasoned documentarian Joe Berlinger but was reportedly butchered by the studio.

Sixteen years later, and Wingard and Barrett have teamed to bring back the formula that made the original so great. Being such a huge fan of the original, and equally such a big fan of Wingard I was sure I would be stepping into a fantastic sequel, and it really is a genuine sequel this time round. James is Heather’s brother, and upon watching a YouTube video reportedly showing newly-found footage from the Burkitsville Woods, he is sure Heather is still out there somewhere. He gets a team together (6 people this time round) to head out there.

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You may be worrying about a sense of familiarity, and that is absolutely present, and is definitely Blair Witch’s first problem. There also isn’t really much of a build up, and the film doesn’t allow us enough time to really gel with the various characters on any kind of emotional level. Whereas in the original where it is a good 20/30 minutes before we even enter the woods, in this we are there almost instantly. I understand why they did that – more than likely in an attempt to differentiate from the original’s set up – but I would have liked more time with the main characters to really get to know what they are about.

One of the main things that makes the original film so fantastic and ultimately so scary is the fact that everything feels genuinely *real*. Heather, Mike and Josh don’t feel like film characters/actors, they feel like real people thanks to their superb performances. They are everyday students – not particularly attractive, and certainly not bright or quick thinking. In Blair Witch 2016, we have an assortment of characters who largely make up for anonymous victims. Outside of main character James and a couple of vaguely interesting goth characters, none of them are particularly well written. The acting is fine all round, but none of them feel like real people – at least not on the scale that the original set. They feel like characters within a film, and they’re all overly attractive and look like they’ve been through two hours of hair and make up. This formed a huge disconnect with me, and I actually found myself started to hate the film for at least the first 40-odd minutes.

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I mentioned an overwhelming sense of familiarity earlier and it really is a problem. Its all here – the Wicca stick figures, the stones piled up outside the tents. If you’ve seen the first film, you’ve *mostly* seen this one, and that is a massive shame. At the same time, however, we have to ask ourselves “What could they have done different?”. They do also at least throw a couple of surprises into the latter half (more on this later).

Then there’s the jump scares. Oh lord, the jump scares. Within the first half of the film, they come thick and fast, and it is pretty relentless. Jump scares are only scary when there is a decent build up and subtle atmosphere. That is not the case for the first half of Blair Witch 2016. They become incredibly annoying very fast, to the point where one character hilarious yells “Can everyone stop doing that?!” when someone creeps up on her for the 16th time.

Wingard also bizarrely opts for background music in some of the scenes. It’s not a score as such, but more a gentle atmospheric hum, the likes of which would be present in something like The Wicker Man. I found this an incredibly odd sound design choice and again started to find myself further disconnecting from the film as a whole.

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One of the aspects this film does very well, but at the same time has a downside, is technology. The film is set in 2014, and so technology has come a long way. With the widely available tech such as GPS and iPhones, it becomes increasingly less believable for six people to become lost in the woods. The film actually gets around this extremely well in ways that I don’t want to spoil. One of the characters is somewhat of a tech expert and so brings along with her some cool innovative gadgets such as earpiece cameras and a camera-mounted flying drone. The aforementioned downside to this is that the film looks a bit too nice most of the time. I really am nitpicking here, but again one of the things that made the original so scary was the terrible DV quality made it so you could hardly see anything beyond the incredible denseness of the woods. Most of Blair Witch 2016’s footage is obviously HD, which means everything is in full clear view, leaving nothing to the imagination. Those who disliked the ambiguity of the original film will probably find solace in the HD quality of this film, but for me it again kick-started a disconnect.

So half way through the film, things were not looking good for my liking of this film. I was finding the characters thin and underwritten, the relentless jump scares were boring and annoying me to tears, and the whole thing just looked a little too nice and clean. Then the second half began to happen. Make no mistake, Blair Witch 2016’s second half is a completely different experience to the first half. I’m not talking in the same vein as something like Cabin in the Woods where the film takes an unexpected turn, I’m merely talking the film’s tone, pacing and atmosphere completely shifting gear entirely. The last 40 minutes of Blair Witch 2016 is one of the scariest and most intense cinema experiences I’ve had in a very long time. The jump scares still come, but this time they are backed up by perfect timing and knee-shredding tension as well as fantastic performances from the cast. It’s almost as if Wingard only directed the second half of the film, and the first half was directed by a less experienced 2nd unit crew.

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The way Wingard racks up the tension in the final moments is nothing short of masterful and there are MANY stand out moments. One moment in particular featuring a character attempting to retrieve the flying drone from a tree branch is so tightly crafted I came incredibly close to breaking a damn finger. The latter half does also attempt a few new surprises (that I won’t spoil obviously) as a way to differentiate itself from the familiarity to the original film. It does admittedly largely follow the same beats as the original, but it at least throws in some genuinely innovative additions along the way.

Another thing I really enjoyed was Barrett’s attempt to expand upon the lore by various moments of exposition. I’ve always said that the best way to develop a found footage sequel is to make a bigger film that expands on the lore set by the first film. It’s what [REC]2 did, and it worked brilliantly. Blair Witch 2016 attempts the same, and it works mostly. Remember the story about the killer who would “make one stand in the corner while he kills the other”? Well that is given much more backstory this time round, and a few funky twists and turns.

IN CONCLUSION:
Blair Witch 2016 starts off murky. The characters are almost irritating (save a few), and the scares are nothing more than loud noises attempting to make your ears bleed. It doesn’t attempt anything different in the first half, and will slowly start to slip your interest away from you. Give it chance though, and the second half evolves into something else entirely – an almost perfectly crafted and expertly directed series of atmospheric scares that you’ll be thinking about for weeks. No other found footage film will ever come close to the original Blair Witch Project, in both believability and scare factor. This one, however, does at least give it a damn good go. It’s just a damn shame about that first act.

RATING: 6/10

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