Director: Adam Wingard
Stars: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez
2 (out of 5) Globes
Let’s start by making this argument: A very belated sequel to “The Blair Witch Project” is not to be poo-poo’d. A worthy successor to a surprise smash from 17 years ago doesn’t have to be a stock horror retread, repeating the same moves but with different bodies being hacked up. It could comment on how technology has taken over, how gizmos have made the whole world seem conquered and safe, and how this last idea can be a comforting lie. It could even acknowledge that, thanks to ever-more accessible and better amateur filmmaking gear, a “Blair Witch Project” made in 2016 would look very different from one made in 1999. Failing all that, it could at least be a blunt machine meant to to tear nerves.
The only interesting new twist in the new “Blair Witch,” though, is what it says about franchises. And what it says about franchises isn’t very interesting. It’s another weary reminder that not everything has to be a series, and that sometimes world building means turning perfectly self-contained movies into convoluted mega-stories without an ending. That’s what happens here, a film that presumes we spent “The Blair Witch Project” not only shaking and screaming at the sounds of broken twigs and cow-like moans while the images offered vomit-inducing shakycam. It thinks we also wanted to know everything about the elaborate myth of the Blair Witch, and spent the last 17 years endlessly filing theories on Reddit.
And of course, it offers only a few fresh tidbits before bowing out. These new — and, frankly, dumb — revelations aside, “Blair Witch” plays too much like a remake: Group of foolish youths head into the Maryland woods with cameras, get lost and seem to be taunted by something or other, which may or may not be a mythic malicious entity. In some ways it’s a classic sequel, which is to say it goes bigger. It doubles the people from three to six, including the brother (James Allen McCune) of one of the first’s doomed participants. There are more scares, plus a much, much longer and more complicated climax. Less is more in one respect: The camerawork is relatively clean, even if some of the cameras this time are allegedly attached to heads. You can watch it without first dosing on Xanax.
It’s worth noting who’s in control: Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett come to the franchise with lots of experience; they’ve done found footage before (in their “V/H/S” shorts) and their last two films were the formal and precise (and very funny) thriller “The Guest” and the lo-fi horror “You’re Next,” which was also a comedy. They storm into the gate promising to bring control to a genre built upon looking amateurish. They introduce far more and varied cameras than were available in 1999: pint-sized ones, decent ones ones that fit in the hand. They even have a drone, yielding the found footage movie equivalent of crane shots as they soar into the air. You expect Wingard and Barrett to bring stealth professionalism, to conjure up new ways of presenting found footage terror while crafting a story that builds on the original. (Needless to say, Joe Berlinger’s “Blair Witch: Book of Shadows” is blithely ignored, written out of the canon.)
And yet most of the set pieces feel old-hat, familiar, stuff you’ve seen before but now in higher-definition video. The only exception is a scene involving the film’s token trooper of a female lead (Callie Hernandez) struggling to squeeze through a tight underground tunnel. It’s panic attack-inducing — although less so than the very similar sequence in Neil Marshall’s cave monsters movie “The Descent,” which had the added element of the roof about to cave in, as well as the novelty of doing it first and even better.
That leaves the myth-making and world-building, which is, alas, sloppy and overdetermined. Perhaps that was bound to happen: Now that tech can map the whole world, it’s hard to tell a story about getting lost in the woods, or having a spooky house no one can seem to locate. Barrett’s response is to amp up the supernatural mumbo-jumbo. Without revealing too much, “Blair Witch” goes too far, creating a movie in which anything can happen, even a fit of Cronenbergian body horror. And because anything can happen, it lessens the thrills, makes one think too much about an increasingly byzantine plot. If franchise entries are now like a game of Exquisite Corpse, Wingard and Barrett are like the people who leave a horrible mess, then pass it off to the next person to clean up.