Tuesday, September 20, 2016

In Theaters: BLAIR WITCH (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Adam Wingard. Written by Simon Barrett. Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Valorie Curry, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson. (R, 89 mins)

Shot in secrecy as THE WOODS, complete with a trailer and promotional materials under that title until it was revealed to be a sequel to/reboot of 1999's THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT at this past summer's Comic Con, BLAIR WITCH goes the route of the third EXORCIST and HIGHLANDER installments and pretends the second film, 2000's much-maligned BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, never happened. You'll be just as eager to pretend BLAIR WITCH never happened by the time it's all over, as the cult/horror team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett pretty much faceplant despite their significant cred as "genre remixers" with the terrific YOU'RE NEXT (2013) and THE GUEST (2014). BLAIR WITCH '16 adds some modern elements not possible in Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's trailblazing original (they get courtesy executive producer credits here), like earpiece cameras with GPS tracking and a camera drone capable of flying over the woods and surveying the area, but once the cast is stranded in the forest, the GPS is useless and the camera drone becomes a non-factor after it gets stuck in a tree. "Stuck" would be a way to describe Wingard and Barrett here, as the pair are unable to do much with the story that wasn't already accomplished 17 years ago. There's jump scares and some unsettling imagery, but by the film's midpoint, it seems the only option left is to turn it into a de facto remake of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which established and mainstreamed the "found footage" genre 20 years after Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and a decade before PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, still holds up nearly 20 years after becoming a cultural phenomenon, though subsequent viewings never quite pack the punch of the first experience. BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, directed by PARADISE LOST documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, was an ambitious but rushed and compromised mess that abandoned the found footage angle and alienated fans of the first film, taking a meta approach with a group of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT superfans experiencing first-hand the kind of supernatural terror that they thought was fiction. Wingard and Barrett completely ignore the second film and center on James (James Allen McCune), who was four years old when his sister Heather (Heather Donahue in the 1999 film) vanished in the Black Hills Forest in Burkittsville, MD 20 years earlier, the discovered footage of her and two colleagues becoming the "documentary" THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Wanting closure to his sister's disappearance, James and his filmmaker friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) arrange a road trip to the Black Hills Forest after James finds some footage on YouTube of a figure in the abandoned Rustin Parr house (where the climax of PROJECT took place) that he believes is Heather, still out there after all this time. With his buddy Peter (Brandon Scott) and Peter's girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) tagging along, James and Lisa head to Burkittsville and meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the Blair Witch enthusiasts who posted the footage after finding some DV tapes buried in the Black Hills Forest. With Lane and Talia as guides, the group makes their way into the forest but the trip quickly unravels when the guides turn out to be charlatans, concocting the footage and also trying to scare the quartet by placing the ominous stick figures around the camp while everyone is sleeping. Angrily sending Lane and Talia on their way, James and the others soon experience everything that happened to the trio in the first film: strange sounds, violent gusts of wind attacking their tents, more stick figures and rock piles, and, in a perfect auto-critiquing metaphor, traveling an entire day and ending up circling back at the same place. You'll feel their pain.

The technological advances had some possibilities, but they aren't very well-utilized, and attempts to add new plot twists only result in confusion and a complete collapse of the story. Apparently, the Blair Witch can now control time and space, with the Black Hills Forest seemingly on another plane of existence where one person's six days can just be a few hours to another. With double the characters of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, that just means more names to yell out when people inevitably and stupidly wander off into the darkness alone to find firewood, investigate a strange sound, or to take a leak.  It feels like half of the film's running time is devoted to people shouting "JAMES! PETER! LANE! LISA!" over and over and over again. And speaking of dumb decisions, these people know what happened to Heather, yet they act surprised when the same things start happening to them. And when Lane and Talia speak ominously of the Black Hills Forest, why are James and Peter snickering like assholes and derisively mocking the local yokels? They saw Heather's footage from 20 years ago, didn't they?  Isn't that the reason James has dragged everyone out here? All roads lead to the abandoned Parr residence, where James plays a game of DON'T LOOK NOW with a diminutive figure running around the ramshackle hell house and Wingard and Barrett feel the need to supply an explanation as to why all of the Blair Witch victims stand in the corner and face the wall (spoiler alert: it's dumb). Was anyone really demanding another BLAIR WITCH sequel? Perhaps the filmmakers approached it with the noblest intentions of really shaking things up and putting their own unique stamp on it (YOU'RE NEXT and THE GUEST are really, really good movies that put original and enthusiastic spins on shopworn genre fare). But what's onscreen just looks like Wingard and Barrett simply gave up after introducing some potentially interesting ideas (like James' almost fatalistic, VANISHING-type need to know what happened to Heather) and doing nothing with them. I'm not saying it's on the bottom-feeding level of the pointless Eli Roth-produced 2016 remake of Eli Roth's 2003 debut CABIN FEVER, but BLAIR WITCH '16's second half is so slavishly devoted to recycling the events of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT that it ends up looking like a lazy, cynical, bigger-budgeted cash grab. It has a nicely eerie, ambient score by Wingard himself, but ultimately, its biggest accomplishment may be establishing some retroactive appreciation for what Joe Berlinger was trying to do with BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2. Somehow, I'm guessing that's not what Wingard and Barrett had in mind.

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