Adam Wingard, director of You’re Next and The Guest, loves to play with genre expectations, taking familiar premises and adding a whole new layer of unpredictable developments. He finds new ways into every genre that he tackles and it is consistently surprising and entertaining. However, many people just don’t seem to “get it”. Critics sang their praises, but they proved to be too different and subtle for the general public’s usual taste. Before starting production on the upcoming Death Note film for Netflix, Wingard accepted an offer from Lionsgate to take on a different kind of film than what he had done before. Originally announced to the public as “The Woods”, hype began to slowly build for what was promised to be a terrifying horror experience. The film had a panel and exclusive screening at last summer’s Comic-Con and guests filled the theater, not sure of what they were about to see.
All they knew was the title, which was plastered all over the posters and merchandise promoting the film. Eventually the lights went down and the movie played. By the time it was over, the audience had finally realized what they had seen. When the lights came back up, their thoughts were confirmed. All of the posters and merchandise had been sneakily replaced with the film’s true title: Blair Witch.
That’s right. It was a surprise sequel to the 1999 found footage genre classic The Blair Witch Project. It has been unveiled to the world and it is instantly clear that Adam Wingard has used his unconventional cinematic approach to breathe new life into a classic.
In Blair Witch a group of young adults go into the nefarious woods that are said to be the home of the legendary “Blair Witch”. This time around however, it is personal. The brother of the female protagonist of the first film leads the pack in response to an online video clip that may be proof that his sister is still alive after all these years. Each of the kids grabs a camera, as well as a very nifty drone and GPS system that is linked to their personal radios, and they venture out into the woods in search of the sister, only to become ensnared in a series of terrifying events that may or may not be caused by the notorious Blair Witch.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Just like the original, we have kids going camping in the woods, hearing creepy things, and then stumbling upon something terrifying, only Wingard has a new approach to a familiar setup. The most obvious change is the use of new technology, which allows viewers to witness the events in ways that were not possible in the original film. Because of this, the film has a greater cinematic feel than the original by default by allowing us to follow every character, even if they split up. The cinematography itself is clearer and focused, allowing the audience to see nearly everything the main characters see. Wingard doesn’t stop here with innovations to the formula though. Little by little, he sprinkles new developments and context into every scene, sometimes in ways that are not obvious. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that as observers to the events rather than participants, things that the characters may not see or notice right away may be obvious to the audience.
The film opens up with the main character observing the previously mentioned online video clip and pausing in sections and exclaiming to the person filming that he “found something”. This is Wingard’s way of subtly telling the audience right from the start that not everything will be easy to find. It will require close observation and possibly multiple viewings. Once hidden images and objects began sneaking their way into the film, it becomes clear that there is something much bigger at play than just a bunch of kids camping in the woods looking for a myth. There are reveals in the final act that are easy to miss, but if you catch them they will change the entire way you see the film. The best way to see this film is to not take any detail or dialogue for granted. The filmmakers find a brilliant way to expand the Blair Witch mythos without being too apparent or on the nose. By the end of the film, answers are given, but even greater questions are proposed that is ripe material for a possible follow up film.
Blair Witch had the potential to be one of the best horror sequels ever made just by all of these clever developments alone. Finding things in the film upon reflection that might have missed before becomes exciting. However, the film has a major flaw that harms the total experience: jump scares. To be more precise, false jump scares; the kind where nothing scary is actually happening. It is just a loud noise that startles in the moment, but reveals itself to be a fake out. It is the worst kind of horror trope and sadly Blair Witch contains many of them in its second act. Adam Wingard is a better director than this, so it is disappointing that he resorts to this kind of cheap tactic, even though there are effective moments still living between these disappointments.
Nevertheless, there is a point in the film where the horror finally lets loose in unbridled fashion. This terror sustains itself to its final haunting seconds. The final 15-20 minutes of Blair Witch are terrifying and unsettling in a way that raises its stakes tremendously and proves to be difficult to shake.
A word of warning: don’t go into Blair Witch thinking everything will be explained in the final seconds. This isn’t that kind of film, as was The Blair Witch Project. Instead, the reveals are strewn across the entire film in ways that are not entirely obvious. Viewers who are willing to piece together the many clues hidden throughout will be intensely rewarded.