You might not believe me, but the original The Blair Witch Project, when it came out in 1999, was one of the scariest movies I had ever seen. The found footage, the fake website, and the anonymity of the actors, meant that millions of audience members mistook it for a documentary. The movie was real, man. But even with that, I’d argue the scariest thing about the original Blair Witch is how it meticulously stripped away the protective illusion that we were all safe. In the last year of the twentieth-century we weren’t at war, the internet was making the world smaller in what seemed to be a good way, and the economy was humming. It felt like the world had been, sort of, solved. Three student filmmakers wander into a forest—what did they have to worry about? One of the deepest terrors of The Blair Watch Project was the realization that the savvy and ironic remove of Heather, Josh, and Mike was what doomed them. They thought they had nothing to worry about, because none of us did. We were very wrong.
Now, when you watch the original film, we’re onto the trick—the film is less existential terror and more three idiots yelling each other’s names for 80 minutes, unable to hold a camera straight. Theoretically, a Blair Witch sequel—one in which a whole new generation of cocky kids who think their GPS and drone cameras will save them in the forest—makes a certain amount of sense. We might feel a lot less safe than we used to, but the idea of being lost in the woods, which provides so many of the original’s scares, is almost a forgotten concept in an age of smartphones and Google Maps.
For a while, Blair Witch, from director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest), looks like it’s headed in that direction, a reinvention that stays thematically true to the shocks of the first film. But then you realize that it doesn’t have much to add to the Blair Witch mythology, and is mostly here to provide generic genre shocks. It takes place in a forest, references the old legend, and has some handheld cameras, but Blair Witch this isn’t.
James, the premise goes, is the younger brother of Heather, and he been haunted by his sister’s disappearance. He heads back out to the Burkittsville woods after a new tape is discovered by some local Blair Witch “experts.” (It’s a little upsetting, as a person who remembers watching The Blair Witch Project in the theater like it was yesterday, to learn that someone who was four years old when the original came out looks like this now. Time comes for us all.) He of course has a friend who wants to make her student documentary about his journey, which is why there are cameras everywhere, though now they’re all GoPros and drones and contained in the same device with which you balance your checkbook and watch your pornography. The movie updates the uninitiated us on the Blair Witch curse and provides some new details, including a bit about exactly why those creepy wooden amulets that keep showing up in the night look like that, but on the whole, once these kids set up camp in the forest, it’s the same movie. They’re in for the same shit.
It’s not like Heather, Josh, and Mike were the most well-rounded characters, but you did always feel like they were real, terrified people. One of the major problems with Blair Witch is that the actors always feel like actors, partly because they’re all too conventionally beautiful, and partly because their characters are types we’ve seen in countless other horror movies. (Heather Donahue’s vanity-free performance in the first film famously eschewed makeup and felt rawer for it; here, you can tell they just got their powder touched up off screen) But a large part of the problem is that everything that felt revolutionary about the original has become routine and conventional. If you’ve seen one twentysomething breathing heavy running away from something in the dark while carrying a camera, you’ve seen them all.
The movie takes the same structure as the first film, and makes it feel less like homage and more like recitation. Surprisingly, Wingard doesn’t do much with the idea that his characters have more cameras on hand and are far more comfortable with having their every move documented: He simply accepts it as a way to give him more angles and never plays around with it like you might expect. (It might have been more clever if one character insisted on recording everything on Facebook Live) The movie just doesn’t have much pop to it. Wingard is the sort of up-and-coming horror filmmaker, one with a healthy regard for the original, that you’d think his revisit of a classic would come adorned with new twists and smart reinventions. Instead, it’s just another found footage horror movie that, if you haven’t seen the first film, will mostly seem derivative and prone to dull bits of exposition for no reason. I’m not sure it would have been possible to appropriately update the original The Blair Witch Project. The movie only holds up today to those who remember its initial power, and why. Without that context, there’s nothing to be scared of here. Blair Witch nods to the first film but never rediscovers its power. I’m not sure anything could today. Trust me, kids: You really did have to be that specific level of stupid to be that specific level of scared.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site