Not that “The Blair Witch Project” needed a sequel, but if had to get one, the team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett were a good choice. They’ve made a handful of intense horror features in the last six years, including “You’re Next” and “A Horrible Way to Die,” and contributed segments to the “V/H/S” films, anthologies that use the “found footage” style basically invented by “TBWP.”
Wingard and Barrett clearly approached their sequel with reverence for the original, a groundbreaking frightener so authentic that numerous viewers believed it really was documentary footage shot by non-actors who were then never heard from again. (I guess the last part turned out to be true.) The new film, simply titled “Blair Witch,” doesn’t try to improve on the format and tone that worked 16 years ago, and it’s modestly successful at creating a sense of dread as new characters wander those same sinister Maryland woods.
We meet James (James Allen McCune), a college kid whose sister, Heather, was one of the original film’s three ill-fated characters. Now a new tape has been found in those woods, reigniting James’ desire for answers and giving him a glimmer of hope that Heather might actually still be out there. Aided by his film-school-student friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and some friends of theirs, Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), James sets out to investigate and document the woods where his sister vanished.
They have better technology than their 20th-century predecessors did. Earpiece cameras let them record everything hands-free, solving the “Why are you still filming this??” problem that vexes most POV movies. (Another plus: earpiece cameras are a lot less shaky than handheld ones.) A drone enables them to see the forest from above the trees; GPS on their phones ensures they won’t get lost (at least until whatever supernatural entity haunts the woods messes with their tech, too).
The four are joined by a pair of local yahoos, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), fervent believers in the Blair Witch legend who claim familiarity with the geographic area in question. These two are a smart addition to the film: unpredictable X factors who put the other four characters on their guard and introduce more conflict to the group dynamics. They’re also useful for filling us in on the details of the folklore, adding to the Blair Witch mythology already established.
Though the film isn’t over-long (just 89 minutes), it does take a while to get going. The first hour offers occasional creepiness, but nearly every “scare” in that section is a disappointing jump scare — a cheat, in other words. There isn’t a lot happening — and when it does happen, the low lighting, frantic movements, and choppy editing make it hard to see WHAT is happening.
But it pays off in the last act, when all hell finally breaks loose and we’re treated to a spookhouse full of sustained, mostly dialogue-free terror. Here’s where Wingard and Barrett’s cleverness, resourcefulness, and deep devotion to the dark arts are brought to bear. I wish the whole movie were as tight as that last sequence, but I suppose it’s better to start slow and finish strong than the other way around. As long as everybody leaves with soiled pants, we’re all winners.
(Note: This review may cause you to think that I have forgotten that “The Blair Witch Project” already had a sequel, “Book of Shadows.” Believe me, I wish.)
B- (1 hr., 29 min.; )