Blair Witch – Review (** 1/2)

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Movie marketing has always been about driving the hard sell on audiences, but the horror genre in particular has recently inundated audiences with an almost hilarious level of hyperbolic grandstanding that the films themselves can’t even begin to live up to most of the time. Some egregious recent examples include the Evil Dead remake being named “the most terrifying film you will ever experience” on posters, while Don’t Breathe was lauded as “the best American horror film in twenty years”, and now Blair Witch has trailers calling it “one of the scariest movies ever made”.

You might as such be expecting a bone-chilling found footage masterpiece from talented director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest), but following a summer of surprisingly effective horror flicks, Blair Witch falls devastatingly short of the mark.

It unfortunately turns out that this rebootquel to the ground-breaking 1999 Blair Witch Project is yet another movie cynically posing as a follow-up but more-or-less remaking what came before. With only the most cursory sequel link, Blair Witch might resonate with a generation who weren’t even born when the original movie changed the game, but for slightly older audiences, it’s rarely likely to rise above watchable. Not to invalidate their opinions, but it’s hard not to feel like those ecstatic early reviews are biased somewhat because many of them came from the film’s very first screening, where the secret sequel was still going by the title The Woods, and so the shock reveal of its true nature surely enhanced the overall experience. Clever move, Lionsgate.

Four twenty-somethings head into Maryland’s Black Hills to investigate the disappearance of the original film’s protagonist, Heather Donohue, led by her now-adult younger brother James (James Allen McCune). As the quartet heads out into the woods with two local guides, it’s not long before seemingly paranormal happenings occur.

Blair Witch is, sadly, pure found footage formula through and through, and Wingard can’t do much to distinguish it, aside perhaps from the amusingly elegant decision to attach a miniature camera to every character recording everything from their perspective, and characters’ frequent use of a camera drone to scout the surrounding area.

The opening act introduces us to the ultimately quite forgettable cast of characters, we get moving to the woods, and the pic then mostly goes through the motions of the original movie; the campers hear strange noises outside their tent, they find piles of rocks and crude twig statues scattered around, they get lost, they scream at each other, and they run through the woods to nearly incoherent visual effect.

There are only one or two new revelations that actually deepen the Blair Witch mythos in any tangible way, but the movie’s real problem, aside from its overwhelming laziness, is that it’s just not that scary. Sure, the final 20 minutes do provide some palpable atmosphere, but it’s all for naught when the film takes the most cynical approach to bringing its story to an end, which might be hilarious if it didn’t feel like such a sad, wasted opportunity while proving indicative of Hollywood’s keenness to dine out so transparently on its prior successes.

While the original movie’s rough-hewn conception enhanced its charm and made the visual sloppiness somewhat permissible, considering that Wingard is an experienced filmmaker clearly working with a substantially higher budget, the countless scenes of visual incomprehensibility feel more idle than necessary here, and so the attempts at scares mostly end up smacking of cheapness.

Performances are mostly fine and there’s some decent humour throughout, but if you’ve bought into the movie’s impressive marketing push, prepare for a thoroughly underwhelming end-product. It’s probably not the end of the franchise, but at least they wouldn’t dare remake the risible Book of Shadows next time.

** 1/2

Blair Witch is in UK cinemas this Thursday and US cinemas this Friday

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