Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Blair Witch (2016)

Spoiler Warning: This review may contain spoilers [mostly vague - nothing too specific] from both the new Blair Witch and classic Blair Witch Project movies.

It is the first week of Autumn, and October looms on the horizon. What better way to kick off the extended Halloween season than with a sequel/remake of one of the landmark films in found footage canon? The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, several years before I developed a taste for horror (the impetus for that was the release of 28 Days Later in 2002, although I can trace isolated, formulative incidents throughout my childhood), but I do remember watching it at some point and having the impression that it was a uniquely terrifying movie. So how does this new take on the legend of the Blair Witch stack up? I'm sad to say that I didn't find it to be of the same high caliber. It has its moments, but suffers in a lot of places, preventing it from earning the timeless recommendation that I would give the original movie. In fact, I felt inspired to go and re-watch the original after I got home, so I would have fresh insight into comparing the two.

And let me tell you, going back and re-watching the original Blair Witch Project - even knowing that you never really get to see anything, I still felt that it constructed a genuinely terrifying atmosphere. "I'm scared to close my eyes. I'm scared to open them." Sadly, we've come to a point in this genre where you can tell the difference between good actors acting like real people (in a brilliant move, I heard the original actors were cast for their ability to improvise), and not-so-great actors acting like characters in a cheap horror flick. The Blair Witch Project genuinely felt like a home video. But nowadays, found footage may be shot in an amateur style, but it still feels like a constructed fantasy. It's like every found footage film that comes out tries to ape the found footage that came before it, so that the genre moves progressively further from reality (like a VHS tape that degrades with each copy). My advice to prospective found footage filmmakers would be not to watch other found footage films, but random home videos on Youtube, and try to imitate their feel.

But I fear that found footage is just one of those rare concepts that actually benefits from being new and untested. Ironically, the more we polish and perfect the format, the more we lose the "realism" that makes it so effective. Case in point, I was both amused and impressed when the new movie opened with a note alleging that the following footage was indeed found (and not produced in a studio). Amused, because by this point, nobody actually falls for that conceit anymore. But impressed, because it showed that the film was dedicated to its format, and honoring what came before it. It's hard to believe, but though now it feels like just an homage, there was actually a time when the idea of found footage was not so familiar to the public consciousness, that a claim to reality could be taken to be at least possible to a large segment of a film's audience. (Going back to the first found footage horror movie from 1980, the creators of Cannibal Holocaust were actually put on trial for murder until they produced the actors who had allegedly been the victims of their little "snuff film")!

"We faked it because it's real."

One of the things that made the original Blair Witch Project so effective - apart from its believable characters (who may or may not have been likable, but felt real) - was its subtle approach. You could criticize the movie for not delivering its payload (and this is so often a criticism of found footage that the genre has begun to regularly include special effects into its budget now), but the way that it plays on the viewer's psychological fears - exploiting their imagination - is what makes it work.

It's worth mentioning that there is not a single jump scare in the original movie. Jump scares are easy. They're cheap. And though found footage is often cheap, it doesn't have to be sleazy. The new Blair Witch movie, on the other hand, is loaded with jump scares. It also utilizes a recent found footage trend that I am not especially fond of, which is the usage of "technical glitches" - abrupt cuts, loud static, and other audio/visual hiccups - to produce what is essentially a jump scare personalized to the found footage format. Easy, unsatisfying scares like these are a sign of laziness. They're a burger at a fast food joint instead of taking the time and making the effort to prepare a hot meal at home.

Clichés and character stereotypes are also a sign of laziness. In the original Blair Witch Project, there was conflict between the characters that developed organically as a result of the stress of getting lost in the woods. It was believable. In the new Blair Witch, you have manufactured drama such as the tension between one character who is black, and another who decorates his home with a Confederate flag (who otherwise shows no signs of racism, and doesn't really fit the "hillbilly" stereotype that's drawn for him). It's a shortcut when what's needed is some quality time in the writer's room.

And even though this movie is all about people freaking out in the woods, I felt like there was too much emphasis on the characters' reactions, and not enough attention paid to what was actually scaring these people. Like, give us some time to actually listen to the creaking twigs, strange animal noises, and other such bumps in the night - get us scared first, instead of just showing us how scared we're supposed to be, by having the actors demonstrate (some might say, over-exaggerate) for us.

Now, I'm not one of those people who is against gore in movies as a matter of principle - I thought the lawnmower scene in Peter Jackson's Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive), for example, was brilliant - but while the special effects in a movie like John Carpenter's The Thing are a sight to behold, this movie caters to the puerile mentality of an adolescent boy who delights in getting a good look at a festering sore. Gross-out has its place in horror, but that's not what I consider entertainment. I was actually compelled to look away from the screen in a few scenes - not because I was afraid of what I might see (which is largely the fun of a found footage film), but because I knew exactly what I was going to see, and I just didn't want to see it.

As far as the scares go, this movie throws all kinds of random shit at you. But I feel like I would better enjoy a movie with some consistent internal logic - more of an exploration behind the legend of the witch, and an explanation of her powers, perhaps - than a confusing hodgepodge of phenomena thrown in just to scare the audience. I mean, you could argue that that's what the original movie did, too, but then there was nothing so over the top that it didn't make some kind of vague notion of sense in the back of your mind. In this new movie, I swear, at one point it sounds like there's a T rex stalking our campers from the shadows!

Now, give me some context for a witch who can transform into an infernal beast to scare her prey (and some rational reason for her to do so), and I'm game. But throwing it in just because somebody thought, "wouldn't that be freaky?", disconnects me from the story. I want depth, not surface scares. Those lights that resemble UFO activity suggest an intriguing hypothesis, but the movie goes absolutely nowhere with it. And the witch appears to be able to manipulate the fabric of spacetime (like we saw in Grave Encounters, albeit less effectively), but why? The lore in H.P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch House is hardly common knowledge.

But if there's one thing this new Blair Witch movie has going for it, it's that it makes up for the lackluster ending to the original Blair Witch Project. Although some may question if that's an improvement at all. I'll admit that I thought the ending to the original movie was anticlimactic the first time I saw it. But watching it again, I think I'd agree with the fans who feel that it was perfect, and that anything "more" would have ruined what made the movie so effective. Still, for better or worse, the extended encounter in the house at the end of the new movie is nothing short of harrowing.

But I won't spoil it for you, even though I'm not entirely convinced that it's worth sitting through this movie to experience. In conclusion, I wouldn't rate this movie mandatory viewing for anyone but dedicated found footage afficionados. The original Blair Witch Project, however, remains horror history, and I recommend it to anyone as one of the sterling examples of what the much maligned subgenre of found footage is capable of in its finest moments.

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