Seventeen years and at least as many parodies have passed since the release of The Blair Witch Project, the nanobudget horror hoaxumentary that did blockbuster numbers and landed the three unknown actors who comprised its main cast on the cover of Newsweek. (Writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez had to settle for the cover of Time.) It wasn't the first found-footage spook-flick, but it was by far the most successful, thanks to its pioneering use of viral marketing. The Blair Witch Project website — one of the first built to shill for a movie — presented phony police reports and news clippings to burnish the Blair Witch legend. The actors, who had supposedly vanished in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting their "documentary" in 1994, were briefly the subject of a bogus missing persons campaign.
Even after Myrick and Sánchez admitted the whole thing was made up, much of the public remained credulous, or at least confused. You can't entirely blame them. The Blair Witch Project's marketing was ingenious, the web stuff propped up by the Sci-Fi channel's "uncensored investigation" special Curse of the Blair Witch, which aired a few weeks before the feature's theatrical release.
Recognizing that this particular iron couldn't stay hot for long, distributor Artisan Entertainment rushed a quickie follow-up into theaters 15 months later. Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows wasn't very good, but it was more ambitious than the frightfully lame new remake-quel Blair Witch, from director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. This pair, which has made several thrifty horror pictures together including the well-received You're Next, clearly have great affection for the original, and they express this fealty by replicating the Napster-era sensation almost beat for beat. But why? Unlike, say, Orson Welles' groundbreaking hoaxumentary F for Fake, which remains provocative and beguiling long after its initial gimmick has been revealed, or many of Christopher Guest's fauxumentaries, which get funnier with repetition, that original Blair Witch film offers little incentive for you to return once you've heard the punchline.
Remember how Star Wars: The Force Awakens was gently chided in some quarters for reprising Star Wars: A New Hope a little too closely? Imagine if The Force Awakens had not conjured up any members of the original Star Wars cast, featured only bland new personalities instead of Daisey Ridley and John Boyega, and also looked no more lavish or impressive than A New Hope, a picture made 40 years earlier.
That's Blair Witch. Tedious in its early going and all but unwatchable in its final half-hour, the movie feels interminable at a barely-feature-length 89 minutes. Maybe it'll play better on Netflix, but it's deeply unpleasant to experience on the big screen, where shaky handheld digital video is a lot more nauseating than when you're watching it online. I'll cop to having squinted and squirmed through much of the second half, but that's just an autonomic response to shaky-cam-coupled with-loud-noises, not a tribute to Wingard's ability to create tension. Spraying the audience with water while playing distorted audio recordings of people screaming would achieve the same effect.
The premise is that paramedic James (James Allen McCune), who was a tyke when his big sister Heather went missing in 1994, has spent years trawling YouTube for evidence she might still be alive. (We're told authorities combed the Burkittsville woods for the haunted house seen in the finale of The Blair Witch Project but never found it.) When he finds a video that he believes to contain her image, he grabs his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who needs to a make a documentary for a college course, and pals Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott (who come along though they hate camping), and tramps off into the forest with the two Burkittsville locals who uploaded the YouTube clip, played by Wes Robinson and Valerie Curry.
The addition of those latter two characters is the film's sole stab at altering the formula: For it moment, it appears we're going to have two rival camps of witch-hunters. But this isn't nearly variety enough to justify a return trip. Even if you didn't see The Blair Witch Project, nothing that happens after sundown in the forbidding woods of Western Maryland (as played by Western Canada this time) will surprise you. This is a cursed place. Wristwatches and compasses and GPS trackers can find no purchase here. (Nor, apparently, can the image-stabilization software that didn't exist in 1994, but has been standard in most digital cameras and smartphones for years.) Mysterious sigils appear overnight, hung from tree branches. There is something ancient and angry in these woods... and it's really, really into arts and crafts.
Found-footage horror pictures are an unbeatable investment; even the most polished (like 2008's Cloverfield) are still so cheap it's virtually impossible for them not to turn a profit. And the format insulates the filmmakers from any criticism of their technical or narrative acuity.
The Blair Witch Project certainly benefited from these relaxed standards. Pivoting between tedium and terror, the movie was easier to admire than to like, and more fun to dissect than to watch. Blair Witch 2016 isn't fun to sit through or to ponder. This ugly, empty retread somehow cost $5 million, a figure that brings to mind Chris Rock's great joke about its precursor: "Everyone's like, 'Oooh, it only cost $60,000.' Where the hell did all the money go? Somebody's walking around with $59,000 in their pocket."