Blair Witch is more clever than scary, which is at once the best and worst thing about it.
Reteaming veteran collaborators director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the film is nominally a long-delayed sequel to the classic 1999 found footage horror. The Blair Witch Project was something of a game-changer when it arrived. At a point in time when movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show (not to mention eXistenz and The Thirteenth Floor) teased out the idea of characters trapped in unreal surroundings, The Blair Witch Project applied that aesthetic to a horror movie in the style of Cannibal Holocaust.
The Blair Witch Project kickstarted an entire genre of contemporary horror framed as documentary footage of horrible happenings; Cloverfield, [rec], Diary of the Dead, The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity. Such films appealed to studios because they were cheap to make, relying on no-name casts and minimal special effects as part of the premise. They also resonated with audiences, perhaps because they spoke to the postmodern anxieties at the cusp of the twenty-first century, perhaps because they mirrored the use of amateur footage in news and online.
Blair Witch marks a return to that premise, perhaps a fond farewell to a genre that has been in decline for the past few years. At their best, Wingard and Barrett push the premise of found footage horror to its limit. This is a film that wallows in its self-awareness and referential integrity, one that feels postmodern and cheeky, one that draws attention to its own status as a sequel by pointedly trapping its characters within a sequel. It is all very clever, and Blair Witch works best when it plays with these ideas. Unfortunately, its scares are nowhere near as clever.
Part of the thrill of the original Blair Witch Project was the way that it blurred the line between fact and fiction. Of course, nobody actually believed that the film was edited together from the real footage of a bunch of kids lost in the woods, but the premise was novel enough in the heady days of 1999 that The Blair Witch Project turned its “true story” into a selling point. (Think of it as an exceedingly trashy supernatural Fargo.) The film had a certain mystique, its reliance on hand-held footage lending it a verisimilitude that earned it a lot of credit.
This creates an interesting contrast between The Blair Witch Project and Blair Witch. In 1999, that premise was different enough that the audience would latch on to it. After all, reality television was still new and exciting, a concept that many viewers embraced as a glimpse of real people acting naturally in surreal circumstances. By 2016, audiences know better than to buy into such things. The average viewer is savvy enough to understand that all reality television offers is a distinct brand of unreality. The audience knows better than to trust labels or premises.
Blair Witch revels in this unreality, constantly drawing attention to the blurred line that exists between what is real and what is fake; rather, between what is fake-real and what is fake-fake. At one point, an expert in the strange phenomenon at the heart of the film is accused of faking evidence. He confesses immediately, “We faked it. We faked it because it was real.” It is a bizarre dichotomy, but one that speaks to how elastic this concept has become, and adopting the signifiers of documentary film making is no longer enough to convince an audience.
Most found footage horrors tend to downplay the obsession that their protagonists share with documenting horror footage, and (presumably) editing it together into a linear horror film narrative. After all, drawing attention to the artificial nature of the premise undercuts the verisimilitude. While the use of hand-held cameras and perspective shots invites the audience to accept what they are seeing is real, making the audience wonder why the characters are still filming immediately negates that storytelling advantage.
However, Blair Witch plays up that obsession. A significant portion of the film is composed of shots of the perspective camera staring at another camera, or watching footage on a monitor. The characters in Blair Witch are all constantly wired for recording, allowing the movie to cut across them as they converse. The majority of home media equipment films in high-definition, so the film avoids the blurry grainy quality traditionally used to suggest the authenticity of such recordings. Characters film other characters filming them, an infinite recursion loop.
“I’m going to need you to sign a release form,” the documentary student Lisa asks one of her subjects. He responds, “Yeah, I’m going to need to you to sign one too.” Lisa talks about using a drone to get establishing shots, blurring the lines between the rough hand-held aesthetic that defines these found footage horrors and more conventional horror films. After all, found footage horrors are supposed to approximate low-budget amateur documentary film making, which is getting more sophisticated every year. Soon, a fake amateur documentary is indistinguishable from any other film.
There is a sense that Blair Witch is constantly on the verge of eating itself, asking the audience to wonder how deep all this unreality goes as the levels bounce off one another. Indeed, Blair Witch suggests that its characters are trapped in some sort of weird horror sequel. Repeatedly over the course of the film, characters point to overlapping events; to echoes of the first film playing out again for them. Events repeat, images recur, patterns echo. However, there is more to it than that.
Despite the film’s mythology hinging on ancient witchcraft, the horror of Blair Witch is largely technological and existential in nature. Characters repeatedly find themselves looping over one another, like footage put on repeat. Watching the film, it frequently seems like the characters are stuck on a scratched disk or a broken tape, repeating earlier events time and time again in defiance of physical reality. No matter how far the characters wander, they return to the same place. They run up the same flight of stairs several times in a two-storey house.
Understandably, looking and seeing becomes a major recurring motif of the film. After all, the central appeal of found footage horror is the idea that a horror is more authentic if it is caught and “trapped” on celluloid or digital film. Early in the film, it is suggested that nobody has seen the eponymous monster and lived to tell of it. Towards the end of the film, it is suggested that the key to surviving the encounter lies in not seeing the creature. It is very much a challenge issued to an audience watching a found footage horror.
This is all very clever, and speaks to the skill of Wingard and Barrett. Blair Witch bends the unreality of found footage horror back upon itself with a practised ease, recalling the charm of their earlier collaborations on self-aware films like The Guest. However, the pair find themselves working within rather severe limitations with Blair Witch. Most notably, the film can only support so much irony. It needs to be an effective horror in its own right as much as a clever twist on a long-standing genre.
The problem is that the scares in Blair Witch are all very conventional. They are heavily reliant on jump scares conveyed through classic found-footage trappings; the use of natural light to create convenient negative space, the rendering of underwhelming CGI that only splashes in a couple of frames, the exploitation of the extremely confined perspective of in-universe cameras to allow threats to appear out of nowhere and attack unseen. There is nothing inherently wrong with these elements, and Wingard uses them well enough, but they aren’t as clever as the film.
This is ultimately the biggest issue with Blair Witch. The film has a very clever premise and framework, but it is doggedly conventional when it comes to delivering scares. There is an interesting contrast between the movie’s recursive postmodernism and its more traditional aesthetic. The film is very clever and very well-observed, but it also rests quite neatly on elements that are decidedly old-school. There is a weird dichotomy at the heart of the film that does not quite work, the film’s effective jump scares feeling insufficient of themselves.
It is hard to tell whether Blair Witch is simply too smart or not scary enough for its own good.