The Shaky Cam Project 2: Budget of Excess
Over 15 years ago, The Blair Witch Project took Hollywood by storm. It’s ingenious marketing campaign (done in the beginning of the Internet) made audiences believe they were watching the true events of a paranormal disturbance, and the movie stands as one of the most profitable films in history by making back its budget by over 4,000%. All these accolades, however, fail to cover up the fact that the movie wasn’t very good. It’s essentially an hour and a half of people yelling each other’s name in the dark and that’s it. But people were swept up by the environment surrounding the Blair Witch that most people (including me) bought into it. So here comes a proper sequel to the movie (no not that one) that tries to continue the story and expand the mythos of the Blair Witch. So how did the filmmakers do? You know the drill, read on…
So, over 22 years have passed since the events of 1994 and Heather Donahue from the first film is still missing. Her brother, James, has always wanted closure about her disappearance and kept up news alerts for any information. A random YouTube clip allegedly taken from near the Black Hills Forest of Burkitsville, Maryland makes the boy believe his sis may be still be alive….after 22 years…to quote one of my friends, “Bitch, she dead.”
So with caution to the wind, James enlists the help of his friends, Peter, Lisa, and Ashley (two of which are Black and therefore marked for death) and decides to camp out where this tape was found to see if he can uncover anything at all about Heather’s whereabouts. Joining them are the two locals who found this mysterious tape, Lane and Talia, who don’t make a good first impression by looking all sketchy and proudly adorning their wall with a confederate flag…good times in rural Maryland. Anyways, the six twenty-somethings link arms to merrily get lost in the woods like the three clueless dispshits in the last movie and to all die horribly.
So a few positives before I beat this film up, starting with “I didn’t hate it.” That might not seem like much, but The Blair Witch Project really has not aged well and was more of a product of its time than it was a legitimately good horror flick. For this sequel, they manage to get in some decent character development in the first half of the film before getting into creepy images and scenes in the latter half that all benefit from an expanded budget compared to the first film. Utilizing everything from body horror to shadow and sound manipulation, this new film certainly carries itself like a “proper” horror film, the only problems with it are that the first half is boring as hell and the second half feels “too little, too late.”
Going to the first half (and avoiding spoilers for now), Blair Witch certainly takes its time in establishing its six main leads and they even demonstrate a degree of survival instinct and preparedness before venturing into the Black Hills Forest. They pack first aid kits, walkie-talkies, a drone, GPS maps, wireless cameras, and GoPro cameras to stick on everyone’s face. This at least makes the film slightly better than 95% of found footage flicks out there by giving a very valid excuse for why the cameras are still rolling despite being in mortal danger. But the problem with all this set up is that it’s mostly telling without a whole lot of showing.
Like in the first movie, the characters talk a whole bunch of the stories of the Blair Witch without showing you what exactly had occurred. It genuinely feels like someone telling you a ghost story around the campfire like you may have done as a kid. While that’s a fine oral way to tell a story, you are still watching a freaking movie…a visual medium that demands your story be told through sights and sounds. Someone recounting a much more interesting story on screen does not endear me at all, it just makes me annoyed that I’m not watching this really interesting story.
And while the conflicts between certain characters make much more sense than the trio of idiots in the last movie whining over who had map duties, the character conflict has just too low of stakes to get invested. That and it takes way too long for the spooky shit to happen, so you just start getting bored hanging around these people getting lost in the woods. And before you start thinking that I have ADHD and require vast amounts of stimuli to remain invested, I point you to literally every other drama I’ve reviewed that felt like good quality slow burns. The characters in those films were interesting, they had goals, hopes, fears, and desires that you got to know over the course of the film. But Blair Witch’s characters just didn’t connect with me at all and failed to keep me invested in their fates.
So if the characters weren’t doing it for me, then how are the actual scares in this movie? Once again, it’s a step up from the original which had between fuck and all scares aside from playing with tents, breathing heavily into a camera, and standing in a corner. For Blair Witch, we’ve got the benefit of actually showing you the Blair Witch herself (who looks a teeny bit like the Internet’s favorite boogeyman, Slender Man) very briefly to establish she’s a monstrous threat to the characters. There’s even a very effective sequence towards the end that makes great use of claustrophobia; if you suffer from it, then you’ll likely be put into an uncomfortable position. Plus, the filmmakers are able to show trees viciously attacking the campers and their tents being ripped to shreds while also taking out certain characters in grisly ways. All step ups from the original film, but then again, it’s only special here because the movie is utilizing horror tropes and techniques that have been used for decades and was never used by the first filmmakers because they were too cheap.
Another issue arises with introducing horror concepts and not doing anything special with them. I mentioned earlier that there’s a bit of body horror that wouldn’t look out of place in an early David Cronenberg flick or even in Cabin Fever, but it only happens to a single character in two sequences and it leads to absolutely nothing. There’s no point for the skin crawling effects aside from the fact it’s there to shock you and nothing more. And this extends to voodoo practices and the aforementioned tree attacks, cool concepts that could have been explored with much more visuals to spurn your curiosity further, but Blair Witch is far more interested in just using them to give you a quick scare.
There is, however, a unique spin that is introduced very, very late into the film that actually does expand the original film into interesting directions, but you’re only given this concept in the last twenty minutes before the movie cuts to black. I want to dig a little deeper, but it’ll require spoilers. So if you’re genuinely interested in seeing this movie, skip to the final paragraph after the next picture for the verdict. Everyone else, let’s hop in.
The locals get separated from the main party halfway through the film and reencounter them later that night. The locals are horrified that only a few hours have passed for the four, because the couple were apparently trapped in five endless nights. Sure enough, a few hours pass and the main party thinks it’s supposed to be morning, only to find themselves in the dead of night. Finally, two of the main characters encounters the house from the first film and James believes he sees his sister inside. More manipulation of time and space continues throughout this climax leading to the realization that the video the characters saw in the beginning of the film was their own video, and they’ve been trapped in a time loop this whole time.
Now this fucking around with time is a genuinely scary concept, as it makes the Blair Witch a much more omnipotent threat and she’s able to use the very environment against the characters and even pit them against each other. It all works to create a scary atmosphere that would be unnerving…if the film didn’t end abruptly with more questions than answers. So the Blair Witch universe is only slightly expanded, but not in any meaningful way. If the film had begun the time manipulation shenanigans at the end of the first act to establish the danger our characters would face, I think we would have a much stronger film than the one we got.
There’s a bit more meat to chew on in this installment of the franchise, but making what essentially amounts to a remake of the original film doesn’t fill me with joy or interest. Concepts now have better special effects, but it’s all a retread of what you’ve seen before. Not helping is that we have had over a decade and a half of found footage flicks that have toyed with several of the same ideas used by Blair Witch. Hell, there’s a pretty solid YouTube series called Marble Hornets all about Slender Man that delves you into the mythology of a horror figure while using several of the same ideas introduced in this movie. It’s better than the original, but the original is utter shit, so that’s hardly a good metric. If you enjoy horror flicks, wait for this to come to Redbox or Netflix because this is an enthusiastic…