By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – It was 1999 when the world struck it Witch.
That’s when a “documentary” called The Blair Witch Project — about three film students pursuing the truth behind a local, supernatural legend – offered found footage that seemed as real as your Uncle Fred’s home movies.
Turns out the modest but resourceful horror chiller was – surprise, surprise — all fiction.
Yet, it dared viewers to camp out in the woods after seeing it and not think about it.
Just about impossible.
Consequently, The Blair Witch Project, which changed the horror genre and independent filmmaking and the found-footage phenomenon forever, turned into – on a percentage basis — the most profitable movie ever made.
It led to an unfortunate sequel the next year, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, an incoherent mishmash of a horror-mystery thriller and an unqualified mess that lacked a payoff.
Which brings us, 16 years later, to a second sequel reimagined, as the marketers like to say, for a new generation.
The nightmarish Blair Witch, originally titled The Woods, is nearly as much a reboot as a sequel, directed by horror specialist Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest, Autoerotic, A Horrible Way to Die) and written by Simon Barrett.
It was shot, structured, and executed very much like the eerie original: so it too is a slow-build shock-fest. But, technologically, it’s an update, with a scare quotient that’s pretty much the equivalent of that of the original.
That is, its aim, simply and squarely, is to terrify.
On that score, it has its moments, but they don’t add up to much.
The film kicks off in the scary house we left off in way back when and introduces us to four new characters, college students, one of whom, James (James Allen McCune), is the kid brother of a woman named Heather who disappeared as a victim in the first film, when three documentary filmmakers vanished without a trace.
Believing that his sister is still alive, James brings along his girlfriend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), friends Peter (Brandon Scott), and Ashley (Corbin Reid), and two locals (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) accompanying them as guides.
These characters aim to go into the woods – the Black Hills Forest in Burkittsville, Maryland — on a camping trip with an array of cameras to shoot a documentary about their friend’s frightful journey.
What they discover before too long is that although it may seem as if they’re alone in these woods, something else turns out to be the case. There is a menacing presence that they can no longer deny.
Director Wingard, dedicated to maximizing the atmospheric tension throughout, includes some tension-release humor in the early going, but is intent on getting his audience as disoriented as the campers/documentarians are as he pays tribute to, while extending the mythology of, the original.
To that end, and while lulling us into a false sense of security, he employs plenty of jump scares and sudden noises.
But the shaky-cam approach is overdone, to the extent that we are often not sure what we’re looking at, which may feed our fears but also becomes downright annoying, making us long for somebody to grab a tripod and hold a shot for more than five seconds.
But the film’s biggest drawback is that the buildup is so much better than the payoff.
We eventually find ourselves humming the tune to the song, “Is that all there is?”
Consequently, this creepy, intense chiller, while heading for its haunted-house finale, exploits our fear of the dark – and, boy, is it dark — and the unknown, but doesn’t have enough up its narrative sleeve to spare us overall disappointment.
So we’ll scare up 2 stars out of 4. Blair Witch certainly isn’t for everybody, filled as it is with dizzying camerawork and “Life’s a witch and then you die” dread. But even for its bated-breath target audience, it’s a lot less than meets the eye.