Back in 1999, a low budget, fictional legend film came onto the horror scene and almost instantaneously became a cult classic. While it received acclaim from critics, horror fans gave it a much more polarizing reception. Many loved it for its originality and the directors attempt to ground it in reality and make a fictional story seem real, somewhat akin to the infamous War of the Worlds 1938 radio broadcast drama that fooled listeners across the nation. However, its shaky cam style as well as its strong and stubborn lead female character was a turn off for just as many horror fans as well. But regardless of where you fell on the divide, critics loved it and a film that only cost an estimated $500-750,000 to make brought in close to $250 million dollars worldwide. Not bad for a film that polarized audiences, huh?
Of course its monetary success brought on a sequel. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was lackluster and generally awful. However, with a new creative team and minimal input from the original film’s creators, it was noted that this could not be regarded as a canon sequel, that distinction belongs to the film I saw last night, Blair Witch 2016. An advance screening promoted on local morning show, Preston and Steve, was packed and not short of gimmicks to try and get the audience excited. With the infamous stick figures that would mysteriously be found hanging in the mornings around our original doomed campers tents hung around and a random tent in front of the auditorium with people inside to scare the audience as they were shuffled into the theater, it was clear that we were going back to the original basic concept that made the first movie such a hit.
Blair Witch 2016 is a direct sequel to the original where we find Jason Donahue, brother of one of the missing campers, Heather Donahue, on a mission to find information regarding his sister’s disappearance. After receiving a video tape from a Burkittsville local that seems to catch a quick glimpse of a woman that Jason believes could be his sister, he plans a camping trip back to the area where the tape was found to perform yet another search for Heather. He conveniently has a friend, Lisa, who is ready to document her friend’s search for her film class, surprise, surprise. Enter his roommate Pete, who is leery of the legends, of Lisa’s desire to film the experience, and plays the stereotypical, horror movie skeptic character. Peter is the guy who thinks it’s all nonsense, is reluctant to be there, and gets aggressive and arrogant with the locals. Basically you want to see him die first because he’s kind of a jerk. Throw in his girlfriend and the couple of locals that sent the tape and are trying to tag along on the search and you now have a group of 6 young people armed with far more cameras and technology than the crew from the first movie, setting out to camp in the infamous, yet still just as fictional, Black Hills Forest.
The movie was smart in that it decided to follow the original formula that made the first such a success. Found footage, shaky hand held cameras, getting lost, and waking up to mysterious noises and trinkets around the campsite take you right back to the creepy feel of the 1999 film. But just like the original, it starts off slow, the difference is that it remains slow a little too far in and tries to fill this time with humor rather than building suspense. By the time the legends start becoming true and the Blair Witch starts working her curse on our new crop of campers, it then becomes too predictable as well as a little too over the top and questionable. Characters who have been set up as being tech savvy and intelligent are all of sudden making those typical dumb horror movie choices, the kind that have the audience thinking, and in some cases shouting, “Don’t go in there!”
There are definitely some spots that made me jump and even slink down in my chair. These instances are mainly due to factors like great creepy noises and startling moments designed to catch you off guard. But while I didn’t have an issue with some of the shaky cam type footage in the first, I found it a little overdone in this installment especially combined with consistent out of focus shots. There is also the aspect of the woods that can really add to the eerie atmosphere of the film but unlike in the first movie where you would gaze into the darkness of the forest and your eyes are given a moment to play tricks on your mind, these shots were much more frantic and all over the place. They don’t stay still long enough to build suspense or give you the sense of being submerged and alone, or not quite alone, in the middle of nowhere. The character development also does not produce a single person that gets you behind them or brings you into their sense of fear. You find yourself not only shaking your head at some of the ways they handle things, but most of their motives come across as ridiculous and due to their lack of likeability, often times laughable.
Despite some of its faults, this was definitely a far superior sequel than Book of Shadows. It follows the original story and does its best to give the new generation of horror fans the same sense of terror that was elicited in the first installment. However, it is so close to the The Blair Witch Project’s basic formula, it will not be surprising to see this divide audiences as well. I’m playing middle man on this one. I definitely didn’t hate it, I admittedly had moments of being startled and getting chills, but I still think the first one did a better job of building suspense and a strong sense of fear. In general, most of the modern horror movie reboots have done a great job of updating the same sense of fright for a modern audience, but I believe it’s possible for the original version of this film to hold up with modern audiences. In general, Blair Witch 2016 was more of just a repackaging of the first to make it more relatable to its current target market. However, it’s also very possible that this new installment will inspire a whole new batch of horror enthusiasts to stay far away from the woods as it definitely made me feel a little reluctant about the camping trip I’m about to take this weekend.