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Given the early positive buzz about Adam Wingard's Blair Witch, I had high hopes the director could resurrect the long-dormant franchise to good results. Wingard's You're Next and The Guest are impressive thrillers, but he brings little energy and few fresh ideas to this second sequel to the 1999 independent film The Blair Witch Project. As I note in my review of the original film, The Blair Witch Project works because, at its core, it preys on fears of alienation and the unknown. Its sequel, Book of Shadows, went in a different direction. Now, some seventeen years later, Blair Witch seeks to continue the mythology minimally built by the first film. Although it offers a few jolts and some creepy scenery, Wingard's film feels like an unnecessary rehash of the original that arrives very, very late to the party.
James Donahue (James Allen McCune) grew up without the sister, Heather, that vanished in the woods outside of Burkittsville, Maryland, while searching for the Blair Witch. Now in college, Donahue continues searching for answers, and receives a video purporting to contain an image of Heather. He wrangles film student Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez) and friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) for a trip to Maryland, where they meet locals Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who found the video in the woods weeks earlier. Lane and Talia convince James to let them tag along on a camping trip in exchange for showing him where they found the video. The group then enters the woods, armed with a number of cameras and a drone to shoot above the treetops. James wants to locate the house seen in the final moments of the Blair Witch tapes. Ashley cuts her foot while crossing a river, forcing the group to set up camp, and nightfall brings strange noises and a bunch of damn stick figures.
The first hour or so of Blair Witch borders on an updated, shot-for-shot remake of the original: Group enters woods, bad things start to happen, group panics, people disappear. Through a series of events that I will not spoil, the group becomes fragmented and vulnerable. The night brings some unseen terror, but mostly a lot of shaky-cam shots of people running around and screaming. The film does offer more visual thrills than its predecessor, but much is left to the imagination. Character development is very thin, and the film never follows up on its early hints that Lisa may be more interested in fame than her friends' safety. The build-up to a reasonably effective climax is unsuccessful because it is so similar to the original film. It is difficult to become invested in the first hour that you already saw nearly two decades ago. Adding a drone camera is not enough to make this a fresh perspective, folks.
Speaking of the climax, things pick up quite a bit here. Purists may decry actually seeing glimpses of the terror in the woods, but Blair Witch had to give you something more than a whisper and a shadow. The movie allows its witch to mess with time, perspective and matter, as if this group is stuck in some hellish limbo. Blair Witch is certainly more brutal than the original, but, because the characters are so thinly written, nothing really registers. During my viewing, I kept thinking how similar this movie feels to the original, and that is not a compliment. Other than a decently involving, chaotic finale, Blair Witch offers little more than headache-inducing camerawork and grating characters. There may be mythology left to explore in Maryland, but this film missed its window of opportunity by over a decade.
The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is comprised of DSLR and drone-footage elements, and looks good overall. The image is sharp and detailed, with lifelike skin tones and appropriately saturated colors. Fine-object detail is notable, and wider, scenic shots are impressively deep. There is some motion blur and black crush in fast-moving, nighttime scenes, which is to be expected. I noticed only minor aliasing on a couple of trees.
Lionsgate provides a hefty Dolby Atmos mix, which I sampled in its 7.1 Dolby TrueHD form. This is an extremely immersive mix, with excellent surround action. The woods smother the viewer with cracking limbs, strange howls and haunting wind. Dialogue is reproduced exceptionally, and is layered appropriately with the effects. The action effects are absolutely blistering, in the best possible way. The subwoofer obeys the witch, and this mix offers a theatrical quality thrashing at home. A Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital dub is included on the disc, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy and both iTunes and UltraViolet HD digital copies. The discs are packed in an eco-case that is wrapped in a slipcover. Extras include an Audio Commentary with Director Adam Wingard and Writer Simon Barrett; the House of Horrors: Exploring the Set featurette; and Neverending Night: The Making of Blair Witch, an impressive, six-part documentary that offers excellent on-set footage and interviews.
This tardy second sequel to independent phenomenon The Blair Witch Project is very late to the party and feels like an unnecessary rehash of that original, despite buzzy director Adam Wingard behind the camera. Blair Witch is more brutal than the original and offers an intense climax, but it mostly runs in circles. Rent It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.