Blair Witch picks up over a decade after the events of the original film, where we find young James Donahue (James Allen McCune) planning a trip into the forested outskirts of the Black Hills of Maryland.
The set up is that there is new evidence of James' sister Heather's whereabouts, after her disappearance into the Black Hills Woods at the end of the original movie. Along with James are his skeptical best friend, Peter (Brandon Scott); Peter's girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid); and Lisa (Callie Hernandez) -- James' friend who is hoping to use the journey as emotional fodder for her film project.
When the crew arrives in Black Hills, they meet the two locals, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who found Heather's tape. Lane insists that he and Talia be included in the journey, and as a six-person crew, they head into the forbidden areas of the forest hoping for significant discovery. And discover something, they indeed do: As night falls, the group find themselves at the mercy of strange forces that begin to prove the horrible legends true.
Instead of hunting the Blair Witch, the Blair Witch is now hunting them.
This Blair Witch sequel arrives on a wave of so much hype and secrecy, as horror fans were first teased with an acclaimed horror movie called The Woods, before leanring it was in fact a Blair Witch sequel. That strange progression has resulted in two big expectations to meet: delivering the horror movie that there was so much hype and praise around, and also delivering a suitable sequel to the original Blair Witch (sorry Blair Witch 2, you've been forgotten). In that sense, Blair Witch (2016) achieves solid results on both fronts, without really excelling at either.
The reboot comes by way of Adam Wingard, who has burst out as a modern horror maestro with films like You're Next, The Guest and the V/H/S anthology series, which each garnered strong cult-followings. With Blair Witch, Wingard is taking on his most public and risky project yet, but employs enough of the filmmaking tricks he's learned along the way (particularly from V/H/S) to create a fine found-footage experience that's wrought with tension, and a few good scares.
Obviously the big question here is whether the found-footage format works for Blair Witch, or is yet another case of an exhausted trend that simply refuses to die.
The answer is that while the format still has its obvious issues (shakey cam), Wingard and his writing collaborator Simon Barrett have a strong enough setup to provide us with suitable angles and perspectives for most of the screen time. Of course, once the mad dashes thorugh the dark woods begin, it gets really hard to keep track of what's going on; sadly, some of the better scares in the final act have their impact lost in blurry or murky found-footage moments.
However, on the whole, both director and writer manage to present a smarter and more efficient distillation of the Blair Witch mythology. The story for Blair Witch actually uses the original to grow out a new chapter both sensibly and organically, while also creating a nice emotional core as a throughline. The pacing of the film is spot-on, with little screen time wasted on fluff. Instead, we move through the setup, to the initial scares, to the full-on terror of the finale quickly and efficiently.
If there is one drawback, it's the characters. Early in the film, there are hints that deeper character arcs were worked into the story - but once the blood starts flowing, there's little time to explore a lot of the tensions and unresolved issues amongst the group. It's kind of a big ball to drop, but luckily for Wingard and Co., the frantic events of the third act will make most viewers forget that there's supposed to be character arcs supporting these walking corpses.
The small ensemble of actors work well together and create some interesting characters to follow (for the most part). James Allen McCune brings vulnerability and realness to the central character of James, making it emotionally tragic to watch his passionate hopes devolve into despair. Callie Hernandez's Lisa has shades and hints of complexity that we're teased with throughout the film. But while she pulls off some of the most tense and frightening sequences in the movie, her character is done the biggest disservice in terms of development.
In the supporting slots, it's Brandon Scott's Peter who is the big scene-stealer of the film, with his brash skepticism serving as a perfect foil for all the tension and fright. Ashley is somewhat of a flat character, but Blair Witch investigators Lane and Talia are a great device for delivering all of the informative exposition in an interesting and creepy way (Wes Robinson and The Killing star Valorie Curry could run an actor's seminar on creepy big-eyed stares).
In the end, Blair Witch is not the "scariest horror movie ever," as we are perenially promised, but it is definitely one of the better franchise reboots (and horror rebooots) to come along in awhile. After this film, there's every reason to believe that the Blair Witch franchise has new life; found-footage horror may have gotten an extension on life; and fans will not be wasting their life, by investing in a ticket.
Blair Witch will be in theaters on September 16. It is 89 minutes long, and is Rated R for language, terror and some disturbing images.