Way back in the 20th century — 1999, to be precise — a couple of indie filmmakers called Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez came up with the truly brilliant idea to make a movie on an ultra-low budget by giving cameras to three actors and setting them loose in the Maryland woods to improvise a “documentary” about a search for the “true” story of a legendary local witch. The effect was so convincing that millions of people actually believed that it was a real documentary about an authentic legend, that the three young people had gone missing in the woods, and that their equipment and the footage depicting the horrors that befell them had been found a year later. The Blair Witch Project truly looked like it was what it purported to be, and the infant Internet of the day wasn’t much help in authenticating or debunking a maybe-fake, maybe-real “documentary.”
The movie was not the first to utilize faux found-footage, but its enormous mainstream success ensured that the conceit would be imitated. And boy howdy, was it ever. Found-footage has, by 2016, become a cheat, a shortcut, a cost-cutting dodge, a way to replace a good tale well told with some shaky camerawork and a pretense of reality.
Enter director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. They’ve made names for themselves snarking on ’80s action movies with The Guest and ’70s slasher flicks with You’re Next. They don’t make their own movies so much as remake everyone else’s. So who better to give us Blair Witch, which isn’t only an entirely superfluous attempt to recapture the magic of the original film — not possible now that the found-footage conceit is long since played out — but is also a remake masquerading as a sequel. (That’s another pit Hollywood has fallen into lately; see also Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence.)
This time out, it’s Lisa (Callie Hernandez) heading into the Maryland woods with friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) to make a documentary about their pal James (James Allen McCune) and his quest to find out what happened to his sister, Heather... the documentary director from the 1999 movie. James is heartened by the fact that locals Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) discovered what Lane believes is more of Heather’s missing footage, which doesn’t offer him any new evidence of anything; he already knew Heather had been out in those woods. But James is obsessed with finding Heather, because if he weren’t, there would be no movie. It could have been a potentially interesting twist on a horror trope if James and his friends weren’t young twentysomethings (James was only four years old when Heather went missing). But old people don’t buy tickets for found-footage horror movies, and young people don’t want to watch old people running around in the wood screaming, I guess.
Wingard and Barrett try to expand the found-footage conceit, but all they do is break it. The Scooby gang heads into the woods with a drone that allows them to get aerial footage, and each of them has an ear-fitted camera that gives us POV shots; material from these sources plus handheld cameras has been edited together into something that more closely approximates a traditional narrative movie than anything allegedly found-footage has any right to be. It also raises the question of who edited the footage, and to what end.
That question remains unanswered, as does the really obvious unspoken big one: Why make this movie at all? There was story left untold from 1999, like who or what the witch is and what, precisely, happened to Heather and her fellow filmmakers all those years ago. Blair Witch seems to be setting up a particularly trippy solution to the mystery of Heather’s disappearance, but after a lot of tromping around in the woods, some familiar horror-flick scares, and fresher but ultimately dead-end hints that the fabric of the physical world has been messed with, Blair Witch ends up in the same place the first film ended up in. It goes nowhere and says nothing we hadn’t already heard 17 years ago.
Blair Witch (R) 89 min.Dir. Adam Wingard; writ. Simon Barrett; feat. James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid Opens September 16