Adam Wingard is one of those directors that comes along every once in awhile and takes the world of horror by storm, but unlike other “flavors of the month” he seems to have some genuine a) skill; and b) staying power, so when it was (masterfully, I might add) revealed at Comic Con last year that his latest, the 2016-filmed The Woods, was actually a sequel to The Blair Witch Project that was “really” called, simply, Blair Witch, folks got understandably excited — including myself.
Anyone who follows this (hopefully) modest little blog of mine knows that I’m not nearly as “down” on the “found footage” sub-genre as some (okay, most) and still find quite a bit to like in many films that fall into the much-maligned category, but even someone who still holds out some hope for flicks of this sort such as myself will readily admit that good shot in the arm wouldn’t do any harm — and certainly if anyone could deliver it, you’d think the mastermind behind You’re Next and The Guest, together with his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Simon Barrett, would be a natural choice to do so. So, yeah, I confess — I was pumped for this one.
Not pumped enough to get off my ass and catch in when it was playing theaters, though, apparently, since Blair Witch came and went last fall before, to be brutally honest, I really even noticed. But hey, that’s why I still keep a DVD queue going at Netflix, right? And last night I finally got to see the flick (in its extras-free, “bare bones” rental iteration) that everyone was talking about — for all of about five minutes.
The basic premise, then, for those who haven’t checked it out yet : in the now-legendary Black Hills Forest just outside Burkittsville, Maryland, youthful lovers/hikers Lane (played by Wes Robinson) and Talia (portrayed by Valorie Curry) happen across an old -school digital videotape and give the curious item a look when they get home. It’s mostly static and “white noise,” but towards the end there’s some shit we all recognize — a handful of confused young folks scared out of their wits and fighting for survival against an unseen, evil force within the confines of an abandoned house. Like any and all people of their generation, they decide to upload this mysterious footage to the internet, and in fairly short order it’s seen by a guy named James (played by — here we go with the old tropes — James Allen McCune) who believes he may be witnessing the final moments in the life of his long-lost sister, Heather, of original Blair Witch Project fame. Cue our erstwhile protagonist assembling a plucky gang of friends a couple of colorful locals to head into the so-called “Blair Woods” themselves and get some fucking answers — all documented on video, naturally. The problem is, of course, that the same entity that beset Heather and her cohorts hasn’t gone anywhere, and is no more enthusiastic about welcoming visitors to its domain than it was back in 1998. Time to pluck off the interlopers, one by one —
Wingard definitely gets plenty right here, don’t get me wrong : the film’s sound design is something to see — err, sorry, hear — and his production design is skillfully authentic and accentuates the old tingles to the spine. Weirdly effective ambient music does a reasonable job of keeping you feeling somewhat uneasy, too, but in the final analysis the problem here — and you probably knew this was coming — is that the film’s entire middle section feels like the sort of tedious “hand-held-horror” romp that we’ve seen a thousand and one times before because, well, that’s exactly what it is. The cast isn’t too bad, by and large, with special “props” going out to Callie Hernandez and Corbin Reid for their over-and-above-the-call-of-duty performances as Lisa and Ashley, respectively, but some better-than-competent acting and better-than-competent production values aren’t really enough to elevate the proceedings until —-
Yeah, wow. Wingard’s third act, set within the walls of the Rustin Parr house, really shifts things into another gear altogether. It’s as frightening, claustrophobic, hair-raising, tense, and relentless as any 30-or-so minutes you’ve seen in a heck of a long time. You can literally feel people’s sanity slipping away just before their existences do the same. But you could easily be forgiven for having mentally “checked out” of the flick well before all this horrific splendor is unleashed. I loved the final 25% (or thereabouts) of Blair Witch to pieces, but its sheer mastery is something of a two-edged sword — it shows us that Wingard is, indeed, more than capable of making “found footage” horror scary again, arguably maybe even scarier than it’s ever been. But it also leaves you feeling more than a bit disappointed that he waited until so late in the film to really give it his all.