Apologies, y'all--I meant to write the next Kvothe post this week, but I'm lacking the energy at the moment. Please enjoy this horror movie rant instead.
I love 1999's The Blair Witch Project. I know it quickly became popular to dunk on it as an Actually Not Scary movie where nothing happens, but I watched it alone at night and it freaked me out like nobody's business.
If you're somehow unfamiliar with the movie, it's the popularizer (but not inventor) of the whole found footage thing, telling the story of three college documentarians who venture into the woods, get spooked by a mysterious supernatural force, then disappear. The movie is semi-infamous for revealing absolutely nothing about the nature of whatever was menacing the characters ("you don't even see the witch" became a smirking complaint among people who don't get how horror works).
Unless you got into the expanded fiction surrounding the movie, which reveals that the source of the evil is a pagan god named Hecaitomix who wants to destroy humanity because he's mad that they stopped worshiping him. This is why over-explaining things is bad.
Anyway, in 2016 we got Blair Witch, a direct sequel that was produced under an unnecessary veil of secrecy. I held off on watching it for a long time because I strongly suspected it was going to suck, but recently, stuck inside on my own due to a blizzard, I decided to strap on my hiking boots and take the plunge.
In hindsight, if I had known it was directed by the guy who made the Netflix Death Note movie, I probably wouldn't have bothered.
Initially, I was actually feeling pretty positive about the movie because it goes out of its way to solve a lot of problems that found footage movies tend to suffer from. Rather than nausea-inducing shaky-cam, the film makers apparently decided that it's now plausible for a group of untrained amateurs in the woods to produce crisp, well-staged high-definition footage using consumer equipment, a conceit I am fully on board with. The whole "why are they still filming this" problem is solved via the introduction of nifty earpiece cameras; the characters have them recording when the spooky shit starts, and then they just forget about them and leave them running. And rather than giving us a pack of unlikeable douchebags who bicker with each other constantly (which is a thing a lot of these movies think audiences want to see for some reason), the movie actually makes its cast endearing and likable.
And then it spends an hour and a half squandering all of that. How? Let us count the ways.
(Spoiler for both movies)
It's over the top. I've written about this before on my old blog. In horror, there's a very fine line between scary and stupid. The original Blair Witch movie stayed firmly on the right side of that divide by being very subtle with its scares, using nothing but darkness, silence and scary sounds to induce an atmosphere of oppressive dread and eeriness. Nu-Blair Witch leaps right over the line and then sprints for the horizon.
It's really easy to demonstrate this, because the movie does everything the previous one did, but way more over the top. Instead of cracking tree branches and mysterious banging, this movie's forest is filled with eardrum-shattering foghorn noises that emanate from seemingly nowhere (these noises are diagetic--the characters are meant to be hearing them, they're not scare chords). Pretty much every manifestation of the witch is accompanied by one of these sounds, which very quickly wears out its welcome.
More like the blare witch, am I right?
And hey, remember those creepy humanoid tree-branch emblems that the characters kept finding in the first movie? Well this time they wake up and there's like five million of them, seemingly crafted from every tree in a mile-wide radius. It's very stupid.
But the worst example is how the movie introduces spatial and temporal anomalies. In the first movie, the characters experience seemingly impossible distortions in space and time, which they are for the most part unaware of. The meta-fiction around the film reveals that the geography seen in the footage doesn't actually exist anywhere they could plausibly have been, and the abandoned house from the climax seems to be a location from the film's back-story that burned down decades earlier, somehow resurrected to ensnare them. This adds an extra layer of bleak hopelessness to the story: the characters were seemingly trapped in some sort of supernatural plane of the witch's creation, which means they never actually could have escaped. They were doomed the moment they set foot in the forest.
In Blair Witch, this basically translates into time travel. Different groups of characters experience time at different rates inside the forest, so that only hours seem to have passed for one but days have gone by for the other, and the whole story turns out to be a recursive loop where the mysterious tape footage that lures the characters into the forest is recorded by them during the course of the movie, and was somehow discovered prior to its own creation. I fail to see what any of this actually adds to the movie, beyond making a neat, subtle twist into an obvious plot point.
It's filled with jump scares. The Blair Witch Project eschewed jump scares, but its many imitators did not show a similar level of restraint. Blair Witch doesn't have any scenes where characters scare each other for the lulz (most found footage movies these days are obligated by law to contain at least five), but it does have tons of moments where people leap out of the darkness to accost their friends and yell "OHMYGODSOMETHINGTOTALLYSCARYHAPPENEDANDINEEDTOTELLYOUABOUTIT!".
Seriously, no one in this movie is capable of approaching someone in a normal speaking voice if they're under even slight duress. Upwards of 85% of the movie's scares--I'm not exaggerating--consist of these moments.
The pacing sucks. Blair Witch Classic used a pretty straightforward structure, where character drama would occur during the day and spooky things would go down during the night; each night, the scares intensify, making both the characters and the audience dread sundown more and more as the story progresses. The movie was careful in doling out horror content, recognizing that characters running around the woods at night would get old fast if it was over-used.
Blair Witch Turbo seems like it's going to follow the same formula, but then shortly after the halfway point it cranks all the dials up to eleven and leaves them there for the rest of the movie. All of a sudden, the witch is toppling trees and sucking tents up into the air, and the movie devolves into endless, repetitive scenes of people running around in the woods and screaming.
As well as being exhausting and stupid, this eliminates most of the positive things the movie sets up near the start. It doesn't matter that the characters are endearing and sympathetic if all of their dialogue consists of "AAAAARRRGHHGHOHMYGODNOOOO" or increasingly-frantic calls for help.
It's sloppy. The Blair Witch Project was a small, tightly-constructed movie, but 2 Blair 2 Witch has too much going on. Instead of only three characters there's now six, but most of them are just there to get killed off. At the start it goes out of its way to introduce all the high-tech millenial gear our heroes brought with them--GPS trackers, a drone, a remote wifi camera--but none of this stuff actually gets used in a way that's interesting.
Even worse, character motivations only matter when the script can be bothered to remember them. The protagonist is the brother of the original movie's Heather Donoghue, which seems like it's going to be a big driving force to explain why he keeps going deeper into the woods--he's spent the last 17 years clinging to the desperate hope that his sister is somehow still alive--but when everyone else gets spooked at the end of the first act and decides to head home, he struggles with it for like a minute and then is fully on board. The fact that he's Heather's brother only comes up again at the very end.
The worst wasted potential comes in the form of Lane and Talia, the two stoner weirdos who found the "new" tape footage and who talk their way into accompanying the others on the trip. It turns out that at least some, if not all, of the creepy stuff that happens during the first night was actually caused by them, as they believe in the Blair Witch legend and want to scare the others away from the forest so they won't meet the same fate as the original movie's cast (this backfires spectacularly).
This is such a good idea, I actually kind of wish the movie had used it as the central pillar of the plot. Like, imagine if the reveal had been left until much later in the movie, and up until that point it's really ambiguous and the party is divided on whether to believe that they're innocent. This could generate really good drama, as the characters turn on each other and split into factions (which would also justify giving everyone their own POV camera).
But instead Lain and Talia get expelled from the group early, and then they pop up a few more times just to introduce the stupid time travel stuff.
The forest isn't spooky enough. I admit this is highly subjective, but Blair Witch was filmed in a green, verdant forest in what looks like late spring or early summer, whereas the first movie was filmed in winter. This makes a big difference in visuals; the barren, skeletal trees of the first movie did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to making a scary atmosphere, and they're now iconic to both the movie and the idea of scary forests in general (they're so iconic that they showed up in the posters for Blair Witch even though they're not in the movie itself). The change in season doesn't do the new movie any favours.
They show the stupid witch. Or maybe they don't; according to the director, the creepy emaciated woman thing you see for about a second is one of the witch's victims. Except there's some implication that this is the woman whose execution following an accusation of witchcraft kick-started the modern version of the curse in the first place, so basically they do show you the witch.
And since this is Blair Witch: X-Treme Edition, it screams really really loudly while it chases someone around, because loud noises are how you do horror.
I'm sure plenty of people will say "well, they had to do something different, right? They couldn't just make a retread of the first movie."
Except that's exactly what they did do. They just did it badly.