Saturday 2 March 2019

From the archive: "Blair Witch"

Perhaps every generation will have its own Blair Witch, much as every generation must apparently have its own Spider-Man. If there’s one reason why the millions who forked out for 1999’s lightning-in-a-bottle event movie might be tempted back into the dark for Blair Witch 2016-style, it could well be director Adam Wingard, the sly, technically gifted horror talent behind You’re Next and The Guest. Wingard shot his Blair Witch under the cover title The Woods before unveiling its true identity earlier this year; if the first movie was an out-of-the-long-grass surprise, this one’s a rather more calculated attack.

Both approaches, I think, have their merit. What we get here isn’t a simple remake, rather a sequel – or continuation – which feels in places like a retread. Its primary camera-wobbler is James (James Allen McCune), who was four when his sister Heather disappeared into the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland. Now aged 20, he’s made contact with the guy who claims to have found the footage that sustained the first film, so rounds up several college pals – media students, natch, which explains the number of devices being whirled around – to head back that way in search of answers.

Wingard and regular screenwriter Simon Barrett tease two unsolved mysteries – how come Heather ended up in a house in the woods, when no house was ever found? Why were figures seen cowed in the corners of its rooms? – while offering the BW framework a 21st century makeover. This version scores better in the representation stakes – James’s crew includes two African-American students, understandably perturbed by the Union flag in the contact’s front room – and everyone’s working with niftier, GoPro-era technology, though the drone camera proves scant help after it gets stuck up a tree.

The original – very much part of that late-Nineties flourishing of independent cinema – was a rough-hewn, semi-improvised pagan ritual, determining to take a bunch of expendable no-name actors out to the woods to scare them half to death. Wingard’s is the more professional Blair Witch movie: it knows it has a good hour to fill before the bad shit goes down, and sets about doing so via a variety of action, character interplay and gruey humour that has clearly been scripted and storyboarded, before being bolstered via heightened degrees of production design and injury detail.

No matter how many times you’ve ventured into the woods, some of this remains effective: the gradual sense of disorientation, measured in the uncertain movements of characters and camera alike, the jolting clunks and thumps on the soundtrack whenever somebody bumps the microphone – exactly the kind of thing you’re not supposed to hear in mixed and polished multiplex product. (You sense Wingard working against his better instincts, having to dumb down ten years and remember what it was like to be a punk kid throwing his equipment around.)

What’s lost in this brisk polishing process is the deranging tedium that was built into (and proved so unnerving about) the original – that sense we were experiencing an exhausting trudge into a literal dead end. (Practically avant-garde in its commitment to on-the-ground meandering, the 90s film The Blair Witch Project most often resembled wasn’t a make-nice indie like Before Sunrise, rather the epic, long-take ordeal of Bela Tarr’s Satantango, where again we were watching doomed souls marching into a deeply uncertain future.)

There’s certainly nothing especially distinctive here, and nothing to convert Blair-sceptics. Much, finally, may depend upon the circumstances in which you first encountered the Witch herself: as a naïve 21-year-old, I found the original terrifying; at a battle-hardened 38, I can honestly say I’d seen much of this before, and grown inured to some of its tactics. That’s not to say it doesn’t still work in some way, though: as the final moments close in around the viewer, you may yet find yourself holding your breath, and conceding that all Wingard’s technical nous is at least good for something.

(MovieMail, September 2016)

Blair Witch screens on Channel 4 tonight at 12.20am.

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