Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Season of the Witch: Adam Winguard’s Blair Witch

When the audience at San Diego Comic Con’s advanced screening of The Woods filed in to catch the latest offering to the “found footage” horror genre, they had no idea that they were actually sitting down to the long-rumoured sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Until that moment, every promotional piece for the film—from the trailer to the movie posters—had been labelled with Blair Witch’s fake name, The Woods, in an effort to throw fans off the trail and deflect the criticism director Adam Winguard knew he would face for resurrecting the 17-year-old franchise. Whether or not it was cowardly for Winguard to dodge due criticism for his work by hyping up a fake movie, it’s hard to deny the effectiveness of his plan. The Woods intrigued and excited horror fans. A month after Blair Witch’s release, however, the film is regarded as a box-office flop. Many chalk up Blair Witch as just another unnecessary sequel that regurgitated The Blair Witch Project’s plot without offering anything new. Yet despite the deluge of negative reviews that I’ve been wading through, I have to confess that I love this film and I think it's brilliant.

The story is thus: twenty years after his sister Heather disappeared into the woods in Burkittsville in the events of The Blair Witch Project, James is convinced by filmmaker friend, Lisa, to take a four-man team into the woods in search of her. While largely sensible, James somehow believes Heather is still alive and his conviction is cemented by (of course) a found-footage video discovered near his sister’s last known whereabouts that seems to show her wandering through a house. A fearless foursome, including Lisa and James’s friends Ashley and Peter, gather their camping gear and meet up with the townie couple that posted the video on the Internet in order to get a better understanding of where the video was found. Naturally, the suspicious couple wants to join the camping party. And so the story goes. Although the setup is pretty straightforward, Winguard’s Blair Witch has the unique position of being both sequel and reboot. Its plot is very loosely tethered to the 1999 story, which presents questions: how does James know so much about his considerably older sister’s disappearance? And with a roughly 20-year age gap between the two, what was their relationship like to make him not only so convinced that she’s alive, but also this determined to find her? Truthfully, it doesn’t matter. The film’s most effective scares are based on mind-bending repetition. Nights loop indefinitely and our protagonists walk for miles in a straight line only to double back on the campsite they left hours ago. The Witch claims victims by trapping them in inescapable situations, bending time at will if necessary, in order to herd them into her lair for slaughter. The plot itself is an extension of this power and it’s so subtle you could miss it: James is looking for Heather and yet he is Heather, already doomed to be caught by the Witch before he ever sets foot in the forest.

James Allen McCune in Blair Witch.

By doubling the original film’s three characters to six, however, the writers are unable to adequately develop any one of them into someone worth watching. None of them, not even conspiracy-spouting couple Lane and Talia, is particularly interesting. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but the giant void where Winguard and Barrett’s character development should be is, in my opinion, one of the film’s strengths. What is found footage if it’s not about simply watching people do mundane things? The format—people with cameras watching people they already know, also with cameras—fosters an emotional distance between the audience and the character that not only contributes to the film’s overall believability (how convincing could this movie be if James goes into the woods, learns about himself, and comes out a better man?) but helps foster an absolutely crucial sense of isolation that left me feeling cold and afraid, just as I had expected and wanted to be. In fact, I’m willing to put forth the argument that character development is irrelevant because this sequel is not about people at all. Just as Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a book about the typewriter, Blair Witch is, above all, a movie about technology. While 1999’s Blair Witch Project was filmed exclusively with one Handycam passed around amongst three campers, Blair Witch boasts drones, GPS, smart phones, and head cameras affixed to the four main characters’ears. Heather Donohue, in the original film, spoke into a blind lens with no operator on the other side. Here, the characters speak to each other and, with each cut, we assume their perspective for a brief period of time. There’s something to be said for the horror created by The Blair Witch Project’s incredibly limited perspective but we’ve spent 17 years looking at it and are now given the opportunity to see more, including aerial shots and multiple angles of the same events. Winguard gives us a peek behind the curtain without giving away too much. The camcorder narrators have more eyes than before, but they’re still as unreliable as ever.

Special effects have advanced too, either to the film’s benefit or detriment, depending on who you ask. Blair Witch diverts from its predecessor by showing an honest-to-goodness monster in grainy footage, putting to rest the pet theory that The Blair Witch Project’s antagonist was human instead of supernatural. Call me unimaginative but, by the time we see the Witch (or whoever that naked figure might be, shambling through the woods with its inhumanly long limbs), I am already fairly convinced that something unholy is going on. I liked this feature, both appreciating and abhorring what appeared to be a nod to the intensely creepy (although blatantly invented by the Internet) urban legend of the Slender Man. Whatever that creature is, it is terrifying and well utilized, never appearing at close enough range for any real scrutiny. And that’s essentially the film’s modus operandi: just like The Blair Witch Project, this spiritual sequel resists telling you too much. With its technological and temporal advances, Blair Witch takes us deeper into The Witch’s world but harks back to classic ghost stories by leaving a slew of unanswered questions in its wake.

Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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