Gather round, kiddies, and hear the tale of The Blair Witch Project. Oh, not the story in the film but the story of the film.
Way back in the 20th century — 1999, to be precise — a couple of indie filmmakers called Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez came up with the truly brilliant idea to make a movie on an ultra-low budget by giving cameras to three actors and setting them loose in the Maryland woods to improvise a “documentary” around an invented backstory about a search for the “true” story of a legendary local witch. The effect was so convincing that millions of people actually believed that it was a real documentary about an authentic legend, that the three young people had gone missing in the woods, and that their equipment and the footage depicting the horrors that befell them (the witch ain’t no legend!) had been found a year later. This illusion was aided by the movie’s Web site, which featured “evidence” such as police reports (which were fake but plausible), and by clever marketing that included missing-person posters of the three “filmmakers.”
The Blair Witch Project truly looked like it was what it purported to be, and — difficult as this may be to believe, my lovelies — the Internet had not yet become the repository of all human knowledge that it is today. There was no Wikipedia, and if you wanted to search, you Asked Jeeves, and he wouldn’t have found much to help you authenticate or debunk a maybe-fake, maybe-real “documentary.”
Now, this movie was not the first to utilize faux found-footage, but its enormous mainstream success ensured that the conceit would be imitated. And boy howdy, was it ever. After 2007’s Paranormal Activity — another indie that found wide appeal — and 2008’s Cloverfield, when found-footage colonized studio filmmaking, the technique began to descend into trope-hood, then cliché, and has now infected many a movie that has mistakenly believed that technique is story. Found-footage has, by 2016, become a cheat, a shortcut, a cost-cutting dodge, a way to replace a good tale well told with some shaky camerawork and a pretense of reality… a pretense no longer holds up in the age of “just Google it” and a movie-nerd Net that exhaustively chronicles every step of the filmmaking and marketing process on any film of geek interest.
Enter director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. They’ve made names for themselves snarking on 80s action movies with The Guest and 70s slasher flicks with You’re Next. They don’t make their own movies so much as remake everyone else’s. So who better to give us Blair Witch, which isn’t only an entirely superfluous attempt to recapture the magic of the original film — not possible now that the found-footage conceit is long since played out — but is also a remake masquerading as a sequel. (That’s another pit Hollywood keeps falling into lately: calling movies sequels when they’re just regurgitating what’s come before. See also Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence.)
This time out, it’s Lisa (Callie Hernandez: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) heading into the Maryland woods with her friend Peter (Brandon Scott: Walk of Shame, Wreck-It Ralph) and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) to make a documentary about their pal James (James Allen McCune) and his quest to find out what happened to his sister, Heather… the documentary director from the 1999 movie. James is heartened by the fact that locals Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2) discovered what Lane believes is more of Heather’s missing footage, which doesn’t offer him any new evidence of anything; he already knew Heather had been out in those woods. But James is obsessed with finding Heather, because if he weren’t there would be no movie. It could have been a potentially interesting twist on a horror trope if James and his friends weren’t young twentysomethings (James was only 4 years old when Heather went missing, so he never even really knew her). But old people don’t buy tickets for found-footage horror movies, and young people don’t want to watch old people running around in the wood screaming, I guess. Probably more seasoned adults would have just turned around and gone home rather than delving deeper into stupidity like James and his friends do, and again, there would be no movie. Which would have been a good thing, actually.
Wingard and Barrett try to expand the found-footage conceit, but all they do is break it. The Scooby gang heads into the woods with a drone that allows them to get aerial footage, and each of them has an ear-fitted camera that gives us POV shots, and material from these sources plus handheld cameras has been edited together into something that more closely approximates a traditional narrative movie than anything allegedly found-footage has any right to be. It also raises the question of who edited the footage, and to what end.
That question remains unanswered, as does the really obvious unspoken big one: Why make this movie at all? There was story left untold from 1999, like who or what the witch is and what, precisely, happened to Heather and her fellow filmmakers all those years ago. And it remains untold. Blair Witch seems to be setting up a particularly trippy solution to the mystery of Heather’s disappearance, but after a lot of tromping around in the woods, some familiar horror-flick jump scares, and fresher but ultimately dead-end hints that the fabric of the physical world has been messed with, Blair Witch ends up in the same place the first film ended up in. It goes nowhere and says nothing we hadn’t already heard 17 years ago. And it does so in a way that is no longer even the least bit unexpected or engaging.