Friday, 30 September 2016

Movie Review: Blair Witch (2016)



The original Blair Witch Project is the godfather of the found footage horror film, the outsider that in recent years has become the cool kid in school. With its bare-bones production values and understanding of viral marketing that was far ahead of its time, it set the world by storm. It’s also one of those films that, with how much it’s been copied of late, can be difficult to watch and appreciate as one could back when it first came out; kind of like Citizen Kane, in that viewing it objectively is probably the best way to approach it. Me personally, while I don’t find it to be out-and-out the scariest movie I’ve seen, I can definitely see all the merit that went into it. Then the sequel Book Of Shadows came out, which took the first film’s notions of unsavoury but still realistic characters questioning their reality and pushed it far beyond the point of being in any way watchable. It is utter garbage and probably one of the worser examples of the Hollywood system just plain not getting what made the original so good in the first place when making a sequel. Looks we’ve got another contender for Sequel Rule #6 with this one, this time with rising star director Adam Wingard at the helm. After his success with The Guest last year, I can only hope that he manages to deliver on this one and not just give us another cash-in to burn. This is Blair Witch.


The plot: James (James Allen McCune) find a video online that was reportedly found on a tape salvaged from the woods in Burkittsville, Maryland, the same area where his sister Heather disappeared 20 years earlier. When the video shows that Heather might still be alive, he heads out to the woods with his friends Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) to investigate, with Lisa filming the events as part of a documentary she’s making for school. However, once they arrive, it seems like maybe there is something in these woods after all, but they can’t be sure just what exactly is going on.

The cast here is really strong, probably one of the better ones I’ve seen in a recent found footage movie. I say this because, while they can certainly be abrasive, they don’t follow the usual MO of just being hateful so no tears are shed when they eventually die. James is the core of the group, serving as the impetus for the plot in and of itself and the emotional center through which the usual “we’re kind of asking for it at this point” horror film plot feels slightly less so. Callie, as our mainly-viewpoint character, works as the textual voyeur without coming across as completely blank outside of that. Brandon is playing both the comic relief and the resident skeptic, both of which he manages to work well with save for a couple of hiccups. Corbin unfortunately spends a lot of the film incapacitated, but credit where it’s due in that she sells the discomfort, pain and later panic that her injury brings. Alongside our main four, we also have two residents of the town who come along at one point with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry). Robinson is good as being the main monkey wrench of the story, making us question just who exactly is behind some of the events in the woods, and he only gets better as he spirals further down into insanity alongside the mood of the film. Curry is a bit too placid at first, but she sells the unnerving circumstances that the characters are in better than anyone else here. Trust me, given what these people go through, that is an achievement.

Considering the series’ history in terms of establishing what the found footage sub-genre is, Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s attempt to modernize the film does a lot to lend credence to the idea that we’re getting a follow-up so long after the original. Where Project used equipment that was contemporary (if pretty lower-tier) for the time it was made, this film does likewise and brings out all sorts of nifty gadgets in order to get the footage we’re seeing. Apart from the standard digital camcorders, we also get wearable cameras around the characters’ ears which manage to settle one of the more egregious issues with found footage films; namely, “why are they still recording this?”. In the heat of the moment, it’s understandable that they would fail to recognize that they still have little pieces of metal wrapped around their ears. We also have some remote cameras and a drone (controlled by iPad, because of course it is) for some overhead shots, all of which are used well in creating good visuals. The sound editing, on the other hand? Not so good. It can get extremely jarring with how the shots are edited together in a typical found footage fashion, except not for the sudden jump cuts as is usually the case. Instead, it’s because the sharp audio spikes that can come up during the edits, along with the annoying jump-scary blasts from the digital artifacts. As much as I laughed when Lisa questioned why everyone re-enters the frame by unintentionally scaring the person holding the camera, that doesn’t change the fact that this film is a little trigger happy when it comes to its jump scares.

Beyond just the technical aspects, as mixed as they can get, Wingard and crew definitely had an idea on how they would build upon and expand the Blair Witch mythos and it’s here where the film really shine. One of the things that made Project work so damn well was, both in its then-revolutionary filming style and thematic elements, it had a real fun time messing with people’s perceptions of reality. True, some of that questioning involved a pretty rock-stupid decision to chuck their only map into a river in Project, but otherwise it works on that purely psychological level of leaving us in the proverbial dust. This film takes those ideas and pushes them even further down the right path, avoiding the direct miss approach of Book Of Shadows for this almost Silent Hill-esque depiction of the Blair Witch’s domain. Again, some of the events can be brought into question as to whether or not the Witch had anything to do with them, but this film finds other ways to mess with numerous heads. I bring up Silent Hill because, along with mainstay Japanese horror themes like recursion and maddening isolation, this feels like the naturistic side of that coin. Where Silent Hill made its mark with shambling monstrosities against a grungy, industrial backdrop, this film takes that same plucked-from-reality stance with a pinch of our innate fear of the unknown. The way that nature itself, embodied by the Witch, has become the enemy pushes the justification for this modern continuation into completion: No matter how far technology may advance, nature always wins. Hell, even with the occasional annoying jump scare, this film gets positively teeth-rattling when it takes its time to let the atmosphere build until you feel like you’re choking on tree sap.

All in all, while there may be quite a few technical hiccups here and there, this is a surprisingly solid continuation of the series. And no, not just because this effectively means we can forget that Book Of Shadows even happened. The characters and their respective actors are good, the writing reaches a realistic form of comradery between them that doesn’t reach the point of needlessly hateful like so many others have, and the overall direction and production values show just how much untapped potential there still is in this franchise by building on old themes to create something genuinely terrifying. This ranks higher than Star Trek Beyond, as this does an even better job of salvaging prior sequel mishaps and highlighting how good the franchise can be when actual effort is made. However, even with their mutual technical glitches, Suicide Squad was just more fun and more engaging overall that this.

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