The announcement of a direct sequel (let’s just go ahead and pretend Book of Shadows didn’t happen, just like the rest of the world) to 1999’s genre-redefining found-footage classic The Blair Witch Project came with a certain amount of imperviousness to the cynicism directed as standard to most horror remakes. Shot in secret under the name The Woods, the trailer went viral, with horror and mainstream news outlets alike touting it as one of the year’s most anticipated genre releases. Waiting until just weeks before its release to reveal its true title, excitement skyrocketed, and a combination of organic hype plus the involvement of much-loved writer-director duo Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way To Die, You’re Next, The Guest) meant that on paper, this looked like a sequel as well placed as any to honour the legacy of the original.
It’s all the more frustrating, then, that Blair Witch feels like such a rehash. In 2016, James Donahue (James Allen McCune) is investigating the Blair Witch legend when he stumbles across footage that he believes shows his sister prior to her disappearance in the nearby woods. For those who haven’t connected the dots, his sister is none other than Heather Donahue, the original film’s protagonist. Certain she’s still alive, he, a handful of friends (one of whom, conveniently, is a documentary filmmaker) and two curious locals head back into the woods, and once again, all is not as it seems.
The setup in Blair Witch is entertaining enough, carried both by some solid central performances and Barrett’s trademark sharp writing. The trouble is that once you’ve sent your main characters, however watchable they may be, into the woods, there’s only so far they can go, both literally and metaphorically. The addition of a few modern technological tweaks lends the film a slightly more cinematic feel than its predecessor (this footage seems to have been pretty capably edited before anyone “found” it) but never really contributes much to atmospherics or scares. The introduction of gadgets such as earpiece cameras and – most notably – a drone raises similar issues to the use of the XBox Kinect in Paranormal Activity 4 – you’ll smirk at the ingenuity, but without a convincing scare to shackle it to, it feels a little too cutesy.
There are some serviceable scares here, but a leaden-footed second act and an unwillingness to stray too far from the path ultimately stymie the film’s more interesting elements. Teeming with fake-out jump scares (and one flatly infuriating long-con fake-out that makes some of this feel maddeningly padded), Blair Witch‘s originality pretty much starts and ends with its inclusion of contemporary gadgetry. When the story truly has to stand on its own, the reverting to the feel of a remake is instant and irrecoverable.