Tuesday 20 September 2016

Blair Witch

Heather Report

Blair Witch
2016 USA Directed by Adam Wingard
UK cinema release print.

Warning: I’ve actually opted for spoilers in this one because I want to talk about specific aspects. If you don’t want to know this stuff then don’t read.

This film, directed by Adam Wingard who made the excellent The Guest (reviewed here), was originally called The Woods when it was being shot and then trailered. I remember seeing the trailer for ‘The Woods’ a few months ago and thinking... “Wow. This looks like a remake of The Blair Witch Project”. Not more than a couple of weeks since I saw that trailer, it was revealed to the public at large that The Woods was not really the title of the film and that it was, indeed, to be called Blair Witch. The first thing I thought of was how perfectly appropriate it was that someone had managed to make a sequel in secret, given the way the original movie was initially marketed as a ‘real phenomenon’ documentary.

Now, I remember the buzz surrounding the original movie because, around about the same time, somebody at my work place had asked me to be one of two test subjects to spend time looking around the internet, getting familiar with it and trying to figure out if the internet and emails were something which would be worth getting for the business. I remember reading about the initial viral campaign and then, when all was revealed that The Blair Witch Project was just another horror movie... but extremely low budget and extremely scary... my interest was piqued. I remember one reviewer coming out of a screening at Cannes or Sundance or somewhere like that and she was visibly shaking because the experience had been so scary for her.

The film didn’t exactly start the found footage phenomenon in the genre... that claim probably, if memory serves, belongs to Cannibal Holocaust... but The Blair Witch Project did, indeed, popularise the technique for horror film audiences and it’s a style that certainly hasn’t gone back out of fashion in the 17 years or so since its cinematic release. There are loads of these found footage horrors made every year, it seems to me.

Adam Wingard’s new movie slyly sidesteps the horrendously disappointing first sequel, Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, without actually contradicting events in that story, from what I can remember of it. Instead, what  he’s done is to have one of the new crew of forest explorers leading an expedition because he is the brother of the lead protagonist of The Blair Witch Project, Heather Donahue, originally played by... Heather Donahue. Yeah, I know... it seemed to be a part of the first movie’s viral campaign that the characters were indistinguishable from the actors who played them. So, following the trail of some new footage found of the incident (which makes no sense to me), Heather’s brother James takes his friends out there, to hook up with the people who found the new footage and try to find the house that Heather and the others ended up in at the conclusion of the first movie.

And then, of course, when they all start camping in the forest the first night... things start to go wrong for them.

Now, I have to say I have a lot of respect for Wingard after The Guest and so, before I go into what some people may say is a weakness of this movie, I just want to say that I had an absolutely terrifying time watching this at the cinema, as my adrenalin levels rose and fell at every shadow and scream. So, in many ways, it’s the equal of the first movie in terms of being a scary experience but...

... I’d also have to say that it’s practically a repeat of that first movie. Which, in all honesty, is exactly what I was expecting from it after seeing the trailer for both The Woods and Blair Witch, at different times. It’s all in colour this time because most of the cameras used are high tech ear cams which the actors wear themselves. They also have a drone with a camera attached to it and all kinds of other things like satellite navigation. Of course, as you would expect from a film set in the Burkkitsville Woods of the first movie, none of this stuff is working properly for very long and even watches and mobile phone alarms are shown to be alarmingly off track when it comes to giving our hapless victims any help whatsoever in somehow managing to find their way out of these woods alive.

So... yeah, it’s also a lot less subtle a movie than the first one was. In the first one, the divide and bewilder routine worked over a series of nights, on a slow build, with lots of daylight conversations highlighting the fraught victims... and that became the main narrative anchors to stabilise the audience between scares. In this one, we have the first day, the first night, what’s left of the second day after some strange, time shifting stuff, and then we’re already on the second and, what appears to be final, night of the film. So the characters spend much less time walking around the forest trying to either find their way out or looking for a lost member of their party and much more time running in blind terror from actual seen, physical attacks on the group. Well, seen in the sense that you see things moving around by themselves and hear giant footstep sounds giving chase etc.

The film also spends a lot longer on the inevitably climactic scene in the house at the end of the movie... as various characters are chased around by a, mostly, unseen terror... although Wingard has also opted for brief glimpses of the witch this time as a malevolent, supernatural (almost parody of herself) creature. The back story of her death is elaborated on earlier in the film, as the witch was tied to a tree and left exposed to the elements with weights hung from her limbs creating a makeshift rack as her punishment and execution. Here, the smartly considered “blink and you’ll miss them” moments where you get an impression of her, match the idea that she has very long, extended, spindly arms and legs as a visual echo of her original fate at the hands of the community she was at odds with. Luckily, the director and his team are smart enough to not let you get too clear a look at the witch herself and, like the rest of the movie, it’s pretty much all done with sound and constantly shifting, moving camera shots. It’s actually very effective.

The performances are what you usually get from found footage productions... very naturalistic and believable. This kind of movie making definitely seems to bring out the best, to an extent, in an actor and, if this is the kind of feel they want to create, then the cast here all do an admirable job. As does the director, who succeeded totally in making me clutch the arms of the cinema seat on this one. I think people have been a little rough on this film, judging by some of the tweets I’ve seen over the last few days. I understand how people are going to latch onto the fact that it’s almost a straight remake of the first in tone and content but... I can’t help but think that, for the first Blair Witch film in an incredibly long time, many of those same people might have complained if it was significantly different or progressive from the first one. Either way, as far as I’m concerned, Blair Witch is a big recommendation from me for all those of you who like horror movies and especially if you like the first movie in the franchise. I won’t be going into the woods alone for a while after this, I can tell you that.

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