Beware: here be spoilers. Stick-wrapped, gory spoilers that might be teeth or even fingers but are definitely spoilers. Final chance.
There is a scene in the 2016 Blair Witch where a girl is snapped in two like a stick. Aside from the fact that, yes, I told you there’d be spoilers, this one sentence should be enough to tell you that this follow up to the 1998 original isn’t playing a subtle game.
To be honest, Adam Wingard’s sequel isn’t really even playing the same game at all. Sure, some of the rules are similar: a bundle of twenty-somethings bounce into the big bad woods armed with all manner of digital devices to record their inevitable doom, but instead of the creeping terror of the Burkittsville woods, the intricacies of The Blair Witch Project are lost in an unrelenting barrage of 21st century horror.
The original movie was bare bones. It was made on a budget, it was method, witnessing the gradual degrading mental states of its leading actors who had absolutely been abandoned in the woods with only a GPS tracker and the odd banana for company. It dangled a lore in front of you then systematically pummelled your imagination into primal submission. Then it journeyed into a horrific house in the woods and ended with a shot that requires you to remember a throwaway comment from the start of the movie. This effectively makes it, and I’m copyrighting this word now, unfollow-upable.
And while this year’s Blair Witch tries valiantly, it fails almost spectacularly. It’s not for want of trying but how can it compete? Given that the original Blair Witch Project demanded as much of its audience as it gave back, the pay off was all the greater. It taunted. Can you hear those noises just out of reach? Can you? It cruelly held noises just out of earshot. Letting them gleefully skip out of arm’s length. This is something that Paranormal Activity managed so admirably too. It held audiences terrified in its grip, forced them to watch every part of the screen for the tiniest movement before closing a door and causing a heart attack. What’s hiding in the dark? The worst thing you can possibly imagine.
In comparison, this new found footage fest leaves subtlety far behind. Subtlety is a dot to Blair Witch. Once this lot of lambs to the slaughter have arrived in the woods, there isn’t just the snapping of twigs to suggest that something’s in there with them, entire trees are felled by a paranormal force. Enormous chunks of forest are brutally ripped from their roots in the darkness and dropped on our intrepid documentary makers like giant deadly environmentally friendly confetti. The sound is deafening. Things that go bump in the night? It sounds like Godzilla is in there with them. Fine, fell trees in your horror movie but for a movie franchise that got its scares from what might have been two rocks hitting off each other three miles away, this is a bit like screaming ‘are you not entertained’ in the bored ears of the YouTube generation.
Then there’s the body horror. In another unnecessary addition, the Blair Witch, inexplicably, manages to get literally under one unfortunate camper’s skin. After an incident with bare feet in a river - really, why would you? - one girl is left with an open wound that somehow manages to make every step she takes sound like a gunshot of a compound fracture. It’s neither fully explained or ever reaches a satisfying conclusion. Why leave anything to the imagination when an unexplained entity can make its nest in a girl’s flesh? Again, I love a good bit of physical squirm. If this film had stayed as working title The Woods, I’d have probably celebrated the bloodied fingers as she tried to yank whatever the hell it is out of her leg. In the Blair Witch though? Unnecessary gory icing on an already fear-filled cake creaking with surplus extra large stick figures. Because of course there’s giant ones of those too.
Add in time travel, a pointless night of eternal darkness and a final fifteen minutes that’s really only scary due to your left over memories of the original movie and Blair Witch is an impossible conundrum. Take out the comically giant stick figures and it would be in a far stronger position. If this had just stayed as The Woods, all would be well. Instead, modern horror has eaten the franchise alive and spat it out in bitesized gif-able chunks. Drone, check. Body nasty, check. Relentless jumpy handheld horror maze, oh that’s in there too. I could handle all of those in another movie but not here. Not smashing through my memories of a movie that left me with nightmares for weeks. If you need me. I’ll be over here. In the corner. Facing the wall.