Tuesday, September 6, 2016

'Blair Witch' review

In an age where it's getting harder and harder to get people to go out to the movie theaters, I feel like we're going to see a growth of "surprise" movie announcements. The current culture in Hollywood involves years of preparation, targeted marketing, and intense planning for their brand name movies, with studios staking out dates on the release calendar before they even have a script, director, or cast. This year, several filmmakers have turned that idea completely around. Paramount waited until January to reveal that their little sci-fi movie known as Valencia was actually 10 Cloverfield Lane, a spin-off set in the same universe as J.J. Abrams' 2008 hit. While the effect of the Cloverfield title could be played as a marketing gimmick, a few months later, Lionsgate and director Adam Wingard took things one step further. Up until Comic-Con, Wingard's latest film was simply a found footage movie known as The Woods. People were excited because Wingard had directed the acclaimed horror hits You're Next and The Guest, but the buzz wasn't out of this world. But suddenly, all of that changed when the studio and director revealed that the movie was actually a sequel to 1999's The Blair Witch Project.

Wingard and his team made the movie in secret, and rumors have been swirling for months about who knew about the movie's true story and who had absolutely no clue. An explosion of positive reactions came pouring out of that first screening, and Lionsgate's twisty scheme paid off big time as the title change became a story in Hollywood. Beyond the dynamics of surprise advertising and innovative marketing, it looked like we would actually be getting a good Blair Witch movie in 2016. Now, I'll admit this- I've never seen the original Blair Witch Project. It wasn't even a year old when it came out, and in the years since, the appeal has just kinda worn off. Back in 1999, the idea that this tape was found in the woods and that these kids had actually gone missing was probably pretty novice. But in the years since, found footage has become a horror subgenre on its own, and the novelty factor just isn't there. Once you know that it's not real, is there actually anything scary about The Blair Witch Project? It's a question that I never really had the desire to discover for myself.

But with deafening word-of-mouth and a talented director at the helm, I knew that I had to check out Blair Witch. I thought that the reviews might have been overblown by both the surprise factor and 90s nostalgia, so even though I was excited and intrigued, there was definitely some trepidation. And it's safe to say that I was blown away by this movie. Blair Witch scared the living hell out of me. Believe the hype. Adam Wingard has crafted something that is blisteringly intense, horrifyingly vague, and truly creepy. By creating an atmosphere of deep dread and fear, Wingard manages to overcome the constraints of the found footage genre and deliver a mind trip of a movie that will scare and delight you in equal measure. Fear of the unknown is the basis of all great horror, and Wingard exploits that to no end in this absolutely terrifying flick. The great year for horror continues.

Hollywood has had a trend of "legacy-quels" lately, and I guess you could say that Blair Witch fits into the same basic category as films like Creed and The Force Awakens (definitely different genres though). The story picks up in the present day, 17 years after those three student filmmakers disappeared in the Black Hills woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. After all of those years, James (James Allen McCune) is still searching for his sister, Heather, who was one of the three that went missing. With the help of a Burkittsville resident, James finds a video tape that seems to show Heather in that same cabin in the woods. He decides that he has to find her, despite the legends about the Blair Witch. Along with Peter (Brandon Scott), Lisa (Callie Hernandez), and Ashley (Corbin Reid), his close childhood friends, and Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), two Black Hills woods experts, James ventures into the woods only to find that the legend of the Blair Witch is all too real.

Horror movies always seem to polarize audiences, and I don't think that Blair Witch will be as universally beloved and acclaimed as something like Don't Breathe or The Conjuring. And with good reason- while Blair Witch succeeds in terrifying the audience, it isn't as precise or nuanced as those films. As I was walking out, there were a wide range of reactions. Some said it was better than the first, some thought it was the worst of the series yet, and one man remarked that it wasn't scary because it was just a bunch of trees breaking. All of those are just personal opinions, but I think that there's something that Blair Witch brings to the table that is truly stunning. It feels both startlingly fresh and deeply retro, a throwback to the classic days of found footage that doubles as an uniquely frightening psychological journey. You can hardly describe it, but the feeling that this movie creates is something really special that I haven't experienced in a long time.

Simply put, there's an ambiguity to Blair Witch that is shocking. And before anybody says it, yeah, even though I've never seen it, I know that the ending to the original was ambiguous as well. This franchise has never given any clear answers. With this film, Wingard mixes that ambiguity with an absolutely relentless narrative that is as punishing and chilling as it is entertaining. The final 20 minutes of this film are almost unbearably intense, and as the narrative progresses into some disturbing and haunting directions, I found myself covering my face, watching the film through the cracks of my fingers. Wingard manipulates tone, mood, and atmosphere so brilliantly, and it all comes together to send a chill up the spine of the audience. He's a filmmaker of immense talent.

In fact, he's so good that I would argue that the characters in this movie don't even feel like the primary players in the story. Sure, you feel for James a little bit. His emotional angle is sad and sweet, and it allows for the characters to make idiotic decisions in the name of friendship and family. But nobody is going to get hooked by this movie because of the characters. You'll be engrossed by the darkness. That omnipresent air of the black of night. You'll be entranced by the trees. The tangled messes that feel like they're gonna start moving at any minute. There's always some sound, a noise, a movement that will send a shockwave through your system. These are the most important aspects of Blair Witch, far more critical than any character in the movie. And as the woods become a maze of death and infinite horror, the sheer weight of the atmosphere that Wingard creates will get your pulse pounding.

Over the last few years, we've seen a return to a style of horror filmmaking that almost feels like a back-to-basics approach. These directors are trying to feed off of our most basic fears, and in the best instances, it's working remarkably well. To use the best example, Lights Out struck a chord with audiences by manipulating their fear of the dark. That's a basic human fear, and that was pretty much the general idea of the whole movie. In Blair Witch, Wingard and his crew take the fundamental human fear idea one step further. With this movie, they're using our fear of the unknown to generate scares. I can't speak for others, but I know that most of the horror movies that strike a chord with me root themselves in a world where nothing is explained. It's part of the reason that I find Mulholland Drive so terrifying. It's why The Shining is the scariest movie of all time. And it's why Blair Witch works so well. By developing such a freaky plot and building to a heart-stopping conclusion where nothing is explained and the twists just keep piling up, Wingard has created a movie that will find a place in the back of your brain to haunt you at night.

Blair Witch took me by surprise, and I think that a lot of audience members will find themselves shocked as well. A sequel to a horror franchise that hasn't been active in 16 years probably seems like a recipe for disaster, but with Wingard at the helm, this movie becomes an unstoppable force of nature. He's a director of momentous talent, a visionary who simply knows how to scare people to death. With Blair Witch, he has created a movie so scary that it just might propel this franchise for a few years. It's gripping, awe-inspiring, and brutally vague, all at the same time. It's certainly not without its flaws, and I believe that there have been better horror films this year. But in my mind, even if it's not the best chiller to grace the screen this year, it's the scariest by a mile. Compact, tightly scripted, and beautifully directed, Blair Witch is another buzzy horror flick that lives up to the hype and more.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.5/10)

Images courtesy of Lionsgate Films

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