Both reinvigorating and bringing the Blair Witch franchise to a new generation, Wingard and Barrett have created a smart, subversive and genuinely frightening feature that will go down as one of the best horrors of the year.
‘There’s something evil hiding in the woods’ reads the tagline of the surprise entry to the Blair Witch franchise. Up until a couple months ago, nobody actually knew of its existence. Fooling everyone under the false title ‘The Woods’ Adam Wingard and ever present collaborator Simon Barrett had been secretly working on the spiritual (as well as directly linked) sequel to the iconic Blair Witch Project which debuted way back in 1999. Revealed at Comic-Con by the team, the trailer highlighted its roots firmly being entrenched in the Blair Witch franchise whilst hinting at adding to the established lore. However with that came at added pressure of living up the game-changing original. The ball was firmly in the court of Wingard and Barrett, what remained to be seen is if they could reinvigorate the series and bring it to a new generation.
As revealed by the trailer, the plot this time follows James, brother of Heather from the original, as he attempts to go back to Blackhills Woods to find any trace of her after discovering a video that could possibly lead to her whereabouts. Along with three other friends, they venture into the woods and well…
What Wingard/Barrett thankfully nailed is a logical reason for us to go back to the woods. What plagues a lot of horror sequels, or any sequel at all for that matter, is that people often find it hard to come up with a believable reason to revisit things in the previous installment. The fact that they have a direct and tangible link to the original, whilst incorporating an actual reason as to why the film was shot in handheld form (shooting a documentary about their investigation) makes it much easier to accept and gives them a sturdy platform to expand and advance the story.
Having produced what, in my opinion, was one of the best slasher flicks in years in the form of You’re Next and then switching gear with the equally brilliant, 80’s inspired The Guest, the collaborative works of Wingard and Barrett have been really smashing it out the park. Knowing that you were in safe hands for his venture made the anticipation for this skyrocket and for the most part, they matched at anticipation stride for stride.
Visually, Wingard managed to take the now fatigued ‘found footage’ style camera work and re-worked it into something completely fresh and exciting. Having all the characters wearing some form of camera made the shifts between viewpoints and situations believable and frantic, creating a sense of panic and discord when things start going south (and they really really do). The temptation to try too much and bring to much into to picture, essentially throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, was evidently there. However, Wingard managed to keep everything tight, coiled and wound so taut that just before the third act really kicks into gear, we’re gripping the seat for dear life. He uses his horror sensibilities from his previous films and relentlessly ratchets up the tension. From the breathless opening to the balls-to-the-wall insane finale, he has a tight grip on his audience and doesn’t let go.
The last five/six years haven’t been great for the horror genre. For every Conjuring there are 10 inferior copycats that rely solely on cheap jump scares to startle its audience. Whilst Blair Witch does in fact incorporate a large amount of jump scares into it’s 89 minute run time, none of them feel unearned. In order to successfully nail a jump scare, there has to be a growing and impending sense of dread and tension, the buildup has to be done right in order to really earn that moment and bar maybe one or two, Wingard and Barrett never once opt for using a cheap loud noise or scream to shock it’s audience. In fact, in a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek fashion, they manage to poke fun at themselves and others for utilizing that trope when one character states ‘can everyone stop doing that!’. As with previous films, we know this duo don’t shy away from gore either and with the obviously larger budget than their previous efforts, as well as the original, they manage to stage sequences and moments that genuinely make you wince and look on in gleeful disgust.
Wingard’s regular scribe and collaborator Simon Barrett seems to know his way around the genre and clearly has a love for the original, he manages to base the script around the the plot of the original and his additions to the rules and the lore are logical and believable, creating some genuinely surprising (and shocking) twists throughout. Where the film does falter however, is that whilst it does have an affinity for original, it often strays to close to the original narrative. Whilst this doesn’t ruin the film, it detracts from the finished product simply because it was doing so well in bringing the franchise in a new and fresh way to this generation. Its similarity to the original might turn off older fans who believe they’ve pretty much seen it all before.
Blair Witch (2016) Directed by Adam Wingard, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate, Certificate 15.