In 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” created a look and feel that made it the most important horror film of the decade. Supposedly assembled from college student videos documenting a scary woodlands legend, it created a remarkable sense of Gothic realism.
Its inventive hand-held, found footage approach to cinematography and editing gave viewers by the millions a bad case of the creepy-crawlys. It was a surprise smash because it literally went so far off the beaten path.
“Blair Witch,” the second follow-up in the franchise, is better than the first, 2000’s “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” a sequel as dreadful as George Clooney in campy Bat-nipples for “Batman & Robin.” While this isn’t nearly as bad, it’s an uninspired disappointment in its own way. Rather than exploring new ground, it sends us down familiar terrain, provoking shrieks for the mercy of a quick ending.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (collaborators on the indie spook shows “You’re Next” and “The Guest”) offer few contrasts with the original. Again, a few students enter Maryland’s Black Hills Forest to investigate its mysterious supernatural history. This time the equipment is different, including millennial updates such as GPS, state-of-the-art walkie talkies and a drone camera for overhead views. The story is different, too. James Donahue (James Allen McCune) has asked his friends to join him on the hike in hope of discovering what happened to his sister years ago.
Despite those era-specific tweaks, “Blair Witch” doesn’t translate the first film into modern terms. It is very repetitious of the original rather than rebuilding it.
Copying the first movie — there are an awful lot of nasty stick figures appearing at the campsite — fails to improve on it. The iconic shaky-cam look, once compelling and unique, is now as banal as the jarring quiet-quiet-BOO! sound cues. While it provides more heart-racing chases through the trees than before, it never takes us deeper into the basic myth. It adds a few images of torture gore and jarringly ambiguous surrealism but fails to stand up as a terrifying movie on its own.
As the hapless group falls into hysteria (scary tree! scary noise!) the friends descend into distrust and abandonment. The personal blow-by-blow pushes each into an isolated battle with the relentless poltergeist stalking them.
But since film violence pays off only when it affects personality-rich characters we identify with, seeing these virtual unknowns dragged off to hell hardly matters. Wingard pushes his cast to screams rather than the original players’ spine-chilling whispers, as if loud equals petrifying. Worse yet, the new actors seem to be performing horror rather than feeling it. The curse of the Blair Witch is back, and this time it’s hexing the audience.