1999’s The Blair Witch Project was in many ways the original viral horror sensation. Establishing itself as something of a theatrical companion piece to a “real” legend, it chilled audiences through sheer possibility. What we were seeing probably wasn’t real, but America Online says it might have been. Seventeen years later, those shades of gray have been painted dark black. The information age has illuminated the elaborate methods that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez used to create a terrifying local legend. How do you go about rebooting that? Certainly, with the curtain pulled back, there’s no point in attempting the same magic trick again. Well, according to You’re Next director Adam Wingard, the solution is simple. Take the basic formula of the original, and trick it out with a brand new V8 engine. Essentially, he has turned an experimental film into a flat out horror movie.
The film centers on James Donahue (James McCune), the younger brother of the unfortunately fated Heather from the original. With only the original found footage as evidence, James has become obsessed with finding out what really happened to Heather. As such, he decides to re-create her journey into the Burkittsville woods with a few pals in tow. As it happens, Lisa (Callie Hernandez) is a film student in need of a documentary, giving us our footage. However, James has planned ahead this time. The crew goes into the woods with walkie-talkies, GPS, and drones in tow. All those bells and whistles might as well be rocks and sticks when horror starts to befall them in the woodland hedge-maze.
Wingard makes no apologies in creating a slicker, nastier package than the original. Whereas that film was an atmosphere piece, creating tension in monotony, this is a set-piece picture. While certainly amped up, nothing about this film feels forced. The story is an organic progression of what came before; the new technology creates deeper immersion and Wingard’s direction still largely relies on suggestion to sell the terror.
There’s some surprisingly strong character work here, with a robust cast of newcomers to sell it. Particularly in the first act, we really get a sense of who these people are and why they would attempt this suicide mission. No two people have the same reason for doing this, and all their motivations make perfect sense. It certainly helps that Simon Barrett’s screenplay gives them plenty of chances to chat, with a wonderful mix of humor and pathos. Once things kick into high gear however, it becomes all about selling the fear. McCune and Brandon Scott anchor things a bit, while Wingard sends his ladies through the ringer. Both Hernandez and Corbin Reid throw themselves headlong into his hell. Reid, in particular, shines in a couple moments of skin peeling body horror.
This might be the most beautiful looking found footage film ever made. The invention of cameras mounted on the head is the best thing ever to happen to the genre. Now, instead of the archaic motion blur of the past, we are treated to a virtual reality experience. Every look, scare, and fall send a jolt through the audience. There are moments of this film that physically hurt. Also, since every character has a camera mounted to them, we can get some diverse edits without breaking the illusion. Wingard also gets maxim mileage out of the forest itself. The lush, inviting trees eventually taunt us with their repetition, while every shadow may have something horrible hidden behind it.
The film is an exercise in paranoia. No matter how many different angles are at our disposal, we still can’t truly get a look at what is stalking these people. However, Wingard does give us a couple very satisfying glimpses. They’re quick and nightmarish, the mere confirmation that something is in fact out there validating our terror. This all crescendos into an incredible twenty-minute climax inside an incredibly haunted house. I’m not talking about one of these fixer uppers where the doors creek a bit and a vase drops from the shelf. Every square inch of this house can kill you, and as the characters go through it, every step is wince-worthy.
Many have harshly criticized Blair Witch for being overly derivative of its predecessor. However, the mirroring of the original is ultimately what makes the new flourishes all the more satisfying. While nobody will ever be convinced that Wingard’s film is real, many will likely walk out with a chilled smile on their face. It certainly isn’t a masterpiece, as it lacks the pristine craftsmanship of other 2016 horror yarns The Witch and Don’t Breathe. It takes it’s lean formula and creates as rich a story as possible, while creating some interesting new wrinkles. I certainly won’t be going near a forest anytime soon. Hell, I won’t even get out a camera if a tree is nearby.