Arriving in theaters in the summer of 1999 on a wave of hype, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's The Blair Witch Project was a hyperrealist antidote to the post-Scream horror landscape of winking, postmodern slashers. Myrick and Sánchez went to great lengths to achieve a sense of realness, hiring unknown actors and sending them out into the woods on their own to film each other camping out and hiking around while the directors tortured them at night with loud, scary noises. The finished film was so convincingly real because it was, in part, a genuine record of three hungry, agitated, sleep-deprived people getting fucked with by forces beyond their control.
Directed by Adam Wingard (The Guest, You're Next) and written by his frequent collaborator, Simon Barrett, Blair Witch, a direct sequel to the original film that ignores the much-maligned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, makes no such attempt at realism. Instead, Wingard and Barrett have constructed a blaring, jolting haunted rollercoaster of a film, one that replaces Myrick and Sánchez's homespun spookery with a veritable assault of jump scares, body horror, breathless chases, and ear-shattering screams.
The basic outlines of the story haven't changed much though. James (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather, one of the filmmakers who went missing in The Blair Witch Project, discovers new footage posted online purporting to show the eponymous ghoulie. Believing his sister may still be alive, he heads to the Black Hills with some buddies: Ashley (Corbin Reid), Peter (Brandon Scott), and Lisa (Callie Hernandez), the last of whom is making a documentary about James's experience. They're joined by the dirtbag couple (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) who found the footage and insist on tagging along. From here, Blair Witch compresses the narrative of the original—aimless hiking during the day alternating with mysterious horrors at night—while significantly expanding the final confrontation with the Blair Witch.
It doesn’t suggest documentary footage found in the woods so much as a haunted-house version of Hardcore Henry.
The film thus takes the classic approach to sequel-making: telling essentially the same story as the original while expanding every everything from the number of principal characters, thus allowing for additional scares, to the number of cameras. While the original used only two cameras, one DV and one 16mm, this film employs several, including tiny earpiece cameras worn constantly by James and his friends. Everybody is filming everybody else all the time, which allows Wingard to cut between multiple POV shots within a given scene, making much of the film play like a Peep Show episode.
As the scares ratchet up, Wingard employs a number of lengthy single-shot sequences that feel like the Twitch stream of some survival-horror video game. Wingard ultimately seems interested in the found-footage approach less for its enhanced verisimilitude than for the immersive possibilities of inhabiting a character's perspective in long, unbroken stretches. Wedding its jittery first-person camerawork with an assaultive, sensory-overload aesthetic, Blair Witch doesn't suggest documentary footage found in the woods so much as a haunted-house version of Hardcore Henry.
This approach works up to a point, providing a brisk, bumpy thrill ride, but the film gives little to hold on to—no lasting images, lingering atmosphere, or deepening of the mythology. Wingard and Barrett's one novel addition is the idea that the witch can somehow manipulate time within the forest, meaning a few hours for some may be experienced as five days for others. This concept allows for some slightly puzzle-y twists, but the filmmakers exhibit so little interest in their own narrative that these developments register—if they register at all—as mere Easter eggs: little rewards for paying close attention.
When it's all over and the lights come up, Blair Witch leaves one feeling swatted, thrashed, and thrown around, not to mention nearly deafened by the film's screeching sound design. But to what end? In fairness, a lot of audiences felt the same way about The Blair Witch Project, which received notoriously terrible CinemaScore grades, including an F from men aged 35 and older. But that film was a genuine phenomenon, one whose influence is still reverberating, while the memory of Blair Witch, on the other hand, is unlikely to last too long after the headache wears off.