The Film (2/5)
James (McCune) - the younger brother of the first film’s Heather - has never stopped trying to find his sister. He sees some footage online that someone allegedly found in the Burkittsville woods and believes he sees Heather in it, so he and his friends – Lisa (Hernandez), Peter (Scott), and Ashley (Reid) – meet up with the people who found that tape (Wes and Talia, played by Robinson and Curry respectively) and set off into the woods to try and find Heather.
And if you saw the first film then you pretty much know what happens from there.
And that’s kind of the best way to summarize director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s take on the Blair Witch Project. Because if you’re tasked with making a sequel to that film, there’s only so many things you can do. After all, Book of Shadows already went the meta route and did a movie about the original movie that expanded its radius beyond the forest (and even though I enjoyed it for what it was it certainly was not embraced by critics or audiences), so Wingard and Barrett decided to go back to the woods.
And there’s nothing wrong with that decision in and of itself, if you’re going to do something new and fresh with the story. Now credit where credit’s due, they thought they were. Because where the original had the audience staring at feet or the ground while characters argued and spooky sounds happened, Wingard builds a photography setup that utilizes a lot of new camera technology (and a much bigger budget) to make sure the audience always sees what the characters are seeing. And sometimes it works to great effect! But only on a purely visceral level, because ultimately the film is saddled with two major problems: one, the whole first person horror thing with the head-mounted cameras may be new to the Blair Witch franchise but it isn’t new in general, and two, (again) while we may be seeing what the characters are seeing, what they’re seeing is essentially the same thing the characters in the first film saw, and we saw plenty of that the first go ‘round. Rock piles, twiggy stick figures, Rustin Parr’s house, people standing in the corner – all of that. Again, there were a few moments of visual inspiration and some extra little spooky things that you never got to see in the original, but at the end of the day they don’t add up to anything that elevates it beyond what’s essentially a flashy remake.
And really, that’s probably the most disappointing thing of all. You have a talented director/writer with a relatively big budget ($5mil compared to the original’s $60k), a bunch of immersive technology, and a mythology that, while kind of small and self-contained, lends itself to more than just this one story, as long as your writer is ambitious enough. But, even with all of those things going for it, they’re all used in service of just rehashing the exact same plot but making it look like As Above, So Below.
Granted, there are some little unique beats that are specific to these characters, but they’re never fleshed out or used as a platform to deviate from the established trajectory. From frame one you know the destination, and as you watch the journey largely follow in the exact same footsteps as its predecessor, you just can’t shake the sensation of familiarity.
Though I will say that once they find and enter the house, something springs to life. I don’t know if it’s the close quarters or the sound design or the fact that the house seems to morph while you’re watching it, but that last 15 minutes or so has an energy that is completely absent from the rest of the movie. And it’s a shame because had it not been, this could very well have been a pretty great little movie, instead of just an exercise in “been there, done that.”
It looks and sounds really good. The 1.85:1 1080p transfer makes everything pop and the Dolby Atmos mix is even and crisp and helps the sound design shine.
If there is an issue with the AV it’s that it’s a little odd that all of these different cameras worn, carried, and operated by the characters are producing the same quality video. From little earpiece cams to drones to DSLRs to handheld DV cams, there’s doesn’t seem to be a real discernable distinction between the footage, and while that makes sense from a practical standpoint it’s just a little jarring. Though that’s more of a side-eye at the source material than the transfer, and a very minor one at that.
You get a feature-length making-of documentary that covers everything from pre-production right up through the big reveal at ComicCon (just a reminder – throughout its development this was marketed as a movie called The Woods and was never revealed to be a Blair Witch sequel until its first audience screening in San Diego). It’s an interesting piece, and I’ll admit that it did a lot to warm me up to the film itself, by simple virtue of how much the people involved believed in what they were doing and how much thought and care they put into the production Granted I wish they had put as much thought and care into the actual story, but c’est la vie.
Next up is a little featurette on the Rustin Parr cabin setpiece that they built since the actual house from the original was destroyed by the owner who was tired of fans trespassing all over his property (fun facts!). It’s actually really interesting to have Wingard and Barrett lead you on a tour through it as they talk about how they built it.
And then of course you have the commentary by Wingard and Barrett, which is interesting enough, but not a whole lot that you didn’t already here in the other two features.
I will say this for the extras – they were good enough and interesting enough that they kept me engaged to a movie I hated the first time I watched it, so that’s something in and of itself.
It’s hard to say who this movie is for. If you really love the original then you may very well end up bored with this. If you hated the original then I don’t really know what you’re going to get out of this that’s any different. If you never saw the original then it’s a toss-up whether you’ll love it or hate it. It’s a well-crafted movie with a good cast and some interesting moments, and while I wouldn’t actively discourage anyone from giving it a look, I stand firm in my assertion that the whole is far, far less than the sum of its parts.