Monday, November 20, 2017
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Review: The only thing scary is how bad 'Blair Witch' is

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Blair Witch is blasphemy, taking in vain the name of a landmark exercise in horror, 1999's The Blair Witch Project.

The creators of that no-budget sleeper hit — four University of Central Florida film school students — already tarnished their legacy with a misbegotten 2000 sequel. Now it's desecrated by director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, in a wheel-spinning homage gone terribly awry.

The beauty of The Blair Witch Project was its then-ingenious premise of found footage, supposedly shot by three documentary filmmakers lost in allegedly haunted woods. This conceit was doggedly followed; there isn't a single scene in which the camera's placement or who's aiming it doesn't seem authentic. The movie made us believe and that was scary indeed.

Wingard sets up Blair Witch with a similar title card pledge, that everything in his movie is culled from digital footage discovered in the same Maryland forest. Then practically every second of Blair Witch refutes that creative promise, reminding viewers that it's only a movie.

Who exactly is holding the camera when it jitter-pans past every character and none possess even a Go-Pro? Is there a third, invisible person in the tent with two others in nervous discussion? How can a victim crawling through a tight tunnel record herself head-on without aiming a camera at her face? And who in the name of escape would do so, anyway?

Other scenes simply don't feel like occasions when the camera would be on. "Let's talk it over in private," one character says, and the recorder rolls on.

No amount of superimposed pause button blips and edits can make such artificiality believable. Nothing in this movie matches even Heather Donahue's first-movie snot bubble for realism. Wingard either has little regard for the original's creativity, or zero respect for an audience he believes is too stupid to notice.

Donahue played "herself" in the original, part of the filmmakers' facade of veracity. Blair Witch picks up with her brother James (James Allen McCune) and three friends (Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott) heading to the Burkittsville woods, where new found footage may show what happened to Heather. The finders (Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry) join their camping trip, YOLO style.

Before long, those creepy stick figure pentangles are hanging from trees, making everyone scatter. Anyone still breathing 30 minutes later meets in the cellar where the first movie ended so logically abrupt. Wingard follows suit, which didn't sit well with Tuesday's screening audience.

That's okay. Same thing happened with The Blair Witch Project, after it was hyped as the scariest movie ever, and for many moviegoers "scary" is precisely what it wasn't doing. It wasn't a bloodbath, or a creature feature. We didn't even see the witch. But it was original, and for early adopters like me, drop-dead dread scary.

Blair Witch conveys none of that desire to experiment with terror. Wingard's movie is simply an unreasonable facsimile, and its sole frightening quality is how much money will be raked in before people catch on.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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