Tuesday, September 20, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Blair Witch

Blair Witch was written by Simon Barret and directed by Adam Wingard.

Barret and Wingard are apparently writing and directing partners, and previously brought us A Horrible Way To Die (haven't seen it), You're Next (eh), some of the segments in V/H/S and V/H/S/2 (not bad) and The Guest (didn't see it). They're also both working on an unwelcome and unwanted remake of the excellent Korean film I Saw The Devil (groan). 

As you might have guessed, Blair Witch is a sequel to 1999's The Blair Witch Project. It completely ignores the 2000 sequel Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which can only be a good thing. 

Actually, Blair Witch is more of a remake than a sequel, as it recreates the structure of the original film almost shot for shot.

I was never a huge fan of The Blair Witch Project. I thought the idea of faking "actual footage" was an interesting film experiment, but ultimately it just didn't do much for me. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer stuffy old concepts like character development, motivation and most of all, plot in the movies I watch. The Blair Witch Project had none of those, as pretty much consisted of three people wandering around in the woods and screaming at one another for eighty one minutes. Heck, if I wanna see that I'll watch my family's home movies!

The Blair Witch Project was a huge cultural event in 1999, and kicked off the whole detestable "found footage" genre that's infested cineplexes for the past seventeen years. Sure, there'd been found footage movies before (like Cannibal Holocaust), but this was the first time one had ever gotten a wide release, and played in mainstream theaters.

It also made a poop-ton of money, grossing around $250 million worldwide against its paltry $60,000 budget, making it one of the most profitable movies of all time! That's why fifteen years later we're still seeing found footage movies. They cost next to nothing to make and are pretty much guaranteed to generate millions. As much as I hate 'em, they're never gonna go away. Studios will just keep pumping them out until the day they stop making money.

The Blair Witch Project's strength was in its simplicity. It was a no-frills, stripped down tale of three hikers who get lost in the woods and meet an untimely end. The actors filmed most of the movie themselves, and their dialogue was largely improvised, giving the film a gritty authenticity. In fact many audiences actually believed the events of the film really happened.

That won't be the case with Blair Witch. The new film is much too slick and polished for even the most gullible moviegoer to ever mistake it for reality.

Another reason The Blair Witch Project felt so real was because it was plausible. There's a spooky local legend, the hikers get lost, they start turning on one another and slowly begin losing their sanity. We never see the titular Witch, and it could be argued that the threat is all in their minds. There's nothing in the movie that's outside the realm of possibility. There was a subtlety to it.

Unfortunately that all flies right out the window in Blair Witch. Everything is bigger, louder and dumber. Here the Witch is most definitely real, we get a brief shot of her horrifying, inhuman visage, and worst of all, she now has spectacularly impressive superpowers, as she's seemingly able to bend time and space to her will. This puts the movie firmly in fantasy territory. There's nothing plausible, possible or subtle about this one.

I suppose Barret and Wingard had no choice but to up the ante in this film. You can only pull off a trick like The Blair Witch Project once, and there's no fooling the audience a second time. The only solution is to try a different trick, like they did here.

I think the filmmakers were screwed either way here. If they decided not to show the Witch a second time, modern audiences would be bored to death and feel cheated. But if you do actually show her, fans of the original will cry foul. There's no way to win. Other than to skip making a sequel in the first place, and we all know that's not going to happen.

The filmmakers went to great lengths to keep the film a secret before its release. Writer Simon Barret claimed they did this because they feared an online backlash from rabid fans of the original, which could have generated negative buzz for the project (which is probably a legitimate concern).

They even went so far as to shoot the movie under the title The Woods, and even mocked up a fake poster to deflect suspicion (although the Blair Witch "stick figure" shape is right there, and not all that subtle). The film's true title was finally revealed in July of 2016 at the San Diego Comic Con, to thunderous applause. Suckers!

SPOILERS, I GUESS!

The Plot:
Back in 1994, Heather Donahue— along with her friends Josh and Mike— mysteriously disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, and have been missing ever since (as seen in The Blair Witch Project). Cut to 2014, as Heather's brother James watches newly uploaded online footage of the Blair Witch Incident. In the video he sees a brief flash of a face reflected in a mirror inside a dilapidated house. Against all reason and logic, he believes the face belongs to Heather, and the tape proves she's still alive after twenty years. Why he thinks this isn't made clear, but let's just roll with it or we'll be here all day.

Armed with this new clue, James heads to Burkittsville to find Heather. His friends Peter Jones, Ashley Bennett and film student Lisa Arlington come along for the ride. Lisa's documenting the trip for a film project, and comes fully prepared. She outfits the group with tiny, hands-free GPS-enabled ear cameras, as well as bringing a larger video camera and even a drone.

In Burkettsville, James meets with a man named Lane and his girlfriend Talia. Lane's the one who allegedly found Heather's footage and uploaded it to the internet. James believes he'll find Heather near where the tape was found, and asks Lane to give him directions. Lane refuses to tell James the location unless he lets him and Talia come along on the expedition. James reluctantly agrees.

The group enters the dense woods and hike for a few hours. As they walk along, Lane tells them about the legend of the Blair Witch. Peter thinks this is hilarious for some reason and bursts out laughing, offending Lane. They reach a shallow stream, and take off their shoes to cross. Ashley cuts her foot on a sharp rock, and James (who has some sort of first-aid training) wraps up the wound.

They decide to set up camp for the night, and pitch their tents in a convenient clearing. During the night they hear terrifying noises surrounding the camp. When they get up the next day, they discover they've all inexplicably slept until 2pm. Um... scary, I guess? They also see the tree limbs are decorated with wooden stick figures tied together with twine.

Ashley freaks out when she sees the figures and demands they go home. The others agree, and strike the camp and leave. As they're walking back, Lisa notices a roll of twine sticking out of Lane's backpack, and accuses him of making the stick figures. He admits he made them, as well as faking the footage on the tape, and says he and Talia have never been in these woods before. Angry, James tells Lane and Talia to find their own way back and chase them off.

James and the others hike for several more hours, but somehow arrive back at their campsite. Lisa launches her drone to try and get an aerial view, but it begins glitching and crashes into a tree. Ashley's foot becomes infected and she develops a high fever. With dark approaching, they're forced to camp in the woods a second night.

Peter leaves the camp to gather firewood (because the abundant branches surrounding the camp apparently aren't good enough) and hears strange noises. He begins running wildly through the woods and is crushed by a falling tree. James goes looking for him, but only finds his abandoned flashlight next to the tree.

James, Lisa and Ashley hear more horrifying sounds outside their tents during the night. A very haggard looking and disheveled Lane and Talia appear, claiming they've been wandering the woods for five days. Lane then runs off into the woods, leaving Talia behind. 

The next morning Lisa's alarm goes off, but the group is puzzled to see the sun hasn't risen. They see the camp is surrounded by even more stick figures, and Talia freaks out when she sees one woven with clumps of her own hair (?). Ashley blames Talia for Peter's disappearance, and grabs the stick figure from her. She snaps it in two, which causes Talia's body to contort and fold in half, killing her instantly. So I guess they're like voodoo dolls?

The Smoke Monster from LOST, er, I mean an invisible force then attacks the camp, smashing trees and tossing their tents high in the air. James and the others run for their lives. Ashley gets separated from them and sits down to rest. She examines her infected leg and pulls some sort of worm from the wound, for no reason than to inject a bit of gore into the film. She then spots the damaged drone high in a tree, and decides she's gotta have it, no matter what. Despite the fact that she was barely able to hobble along a few seconds earlier, she somehow she climbs high into the tree with cat-like agility. As she reaches for the drone she slips and falls several hundred feet, and her body's dragged away by the unseen force.

As a thunderstorm erupts, James and Lisa find the house from Lane's video. James thinks he sees Heather in an upper window (?) and rushes inside. We're then treated to several minutes of vertigo-inducing shots of him frantically running through hallways in the house. Lisa sees a bizarre shape outside the house and reluctantly runs inside. She ends up in the basement, where she's attacked by an insane and bearded Lane. He throws her into a tunnel beneath the basement (??). She crawls through the muddy tunnel— becoming momentarily stuck a few times— and eventually exits into the basement (???). Lane attacks again and she stabs him in the neck with her camping knife. She runs into James, and they head upstairs. As they do, we briefly see the same reflected face that James saw in the tape— the one he thought was Heather—  indicating there's some timey-whimey shenanigans going on in the house. They make it to the attic and lock the door.

A bright light shines through the cracks of the house, as the movie briefly becomes Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. James, who's suddenly become an expert on the Blair Witch, orders Lisa to stand in a corner and close her eyes, saying they'll be safe as long as they don't look directly at the Witch, as we now begin referencing Raiders Of The Lost Ark

The attic door's forced open, and the Witch enters. She does her best vocal impression of Heather, which causes James to turn around and see her, and he's instantly killed. Lisa uses her camcorder screen to try and walk backwards out of the house without looking at the Witch. She almost makes it, but then she hears "James" call out, and like an idiot turns around and is killed. Her camera drops to the floor and the screen goes black, as the audience sits in confusion for a few seconds, unsure of whether the movie's over or not.

Thoughts:
• The movie takes place in 2014, a full twenty years after Heather disappeared. So why the hell is James convinced that she's still alive? Does he really think his sister's been wandering around the woods for two decades, trying to find her way out? That must be one damned big forest! Does he think she learned to hunt and kill animals to survive, and how to fashion clothing from their skins?

I'm also not clear as to why he thinks the blurry face in a single frame of a grainy online video is unequivocally her, when it's impossible to tell who the hell it's supposed to be.

I get that the filmmakers wanted a connection with the first movie, but James' Ahab-like obsession with a sister he didn't even know (he was supposedly only four years old when she disappeared) was just plain bad writing. It might have worked if this film had come out a year after the original, or was set in 2000. But twenty years later? Nope.

• Peter mentions that he was part of the search party that scoured the woods for Heather after she disappeared in 1994. Um… Peter looks to be about the same age as James, which means he was four years old when Heather went missing. Did they really bring a four year old on a search party? And if they did, would he really remember anything about it? How much do you remember from when you were four?

• One of my biggest complaints about the found footage genre (besides the lack of acting talent, special effects, production design and plot) is the fact that invariably the characters will continue filming everything, even when they should be tossing the camera to the ground and running for their lives.

Credit where credit's due: Blair Witch addresses this problem by providing the four leads with tiny, wireless ear-mounted cameras. Now their hands will be free as they're avoiding angry witches while running blindly through the woods. Well done!

Of course I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out that the Ashley character wears one of these ear cameras under her impressive shock of thick, curly hair. Yet somehow her camera consistently has an unobstructed view!

• Jesus Christ, this movie set a new record for jump scares. I finally stopped counting them at ten, and there were several more after that. In fact after two or three of them in a row, one of the characters actually tells another to "Stop doing that!" When the characters start commenting on how excessive the jump scares are in their own movie, there just might be a few too many.

When are directors ever going to learn that jump scares are not, well, scary? If you can't think of a better way to try and frighten your audience than by yelling "BOO!" at them, then maybe you'd be better off making a romantic comedy.

• Earlier I said The Blair Witch Project had a certain subtlety to it. Heather and her friends hear a twig snap outside their tent, and they freeze in terror. I saw the film in the theater, and the entire audience (including me) was leaning forward during that scene, desperately straining to pick up any stray noises on the soundtrack. The uncertainty of whether there was really something there or not is what made it scary.

Cut to Blair Witch. Lisa says, "Did you hear that?" Suddenly a sound like a herd of elephants trampling the microphone blares from the speakers, trees snap in half and fall, and some unseen force rips the tents from the ground and hurls them upwards into the sky. It's not quite the same.

• As the group enters the Black Hills Forest, Lane tells the others that no one ever enters this particular woods, and it's completely untouched. Oddly enough, he says this while they're walking along a nice, cleared trail that winds through the trees.

• I mentioned this in the plot, but it deserves repeating. During the second day of the trip, Ashley's foot is badly infected, she has a severe fever and she's barely able to rise out of bed and hobble along.

Yet the second she sees the drone in the tree, this woman who looks like she's never even been in a forest before can suddenly climb like a lumberjack. She climbs up at least a hundred feet, constantly placing all her weight on her swollen foot with no ill effects. Maybe the Witch used her time-manipulating powers to speed up Ashley's healing when we weren't looking?

• The film sets up a bunch of things that seem like they're going to be important, but are promptly dropped and never pan out.

Lane admits that he and Talia made the stick figures and hung them in the camp, but we never find out just why they do this. Are they trying to prank James and his friends by dragging them out in the woods and scaring the crap out of them? Are they working with the Witch, and providing her with victims? That would be an interesting idea, but I guess it's none of our business as the issue is never dealt with.

After the gang hears the scary noises during the first night in the woods, they attach a small security camera to a tree to monitor the camp. When the noises recur the next night, no one thinks to check the camera to see what was causing it.

Lisa brings a drone so the group can hopefully spot the house from the air. It feels like this drone's going to play a big role in the plot, but it's used a couple of times and then forgotten.

Talia freaks out when she sees one of the stick figures has some of her hair woven into it. Ashley angrily grabs the figure from her and breaks it in two. This somehow causes Talia's body to be gruesomely folded in half, killing her. Again, this "voodoo doll" thing was an interesting idea, but it flies against everything that was previously established. It was pulled straight out of the screenwriter's ass, with absolutely no justification or foreshadowing. And then like everything else it's promptly dropped, never to be mentioned again.

Ashley sits down on a log to examine her infected foot. She then pulls some thing out of a festering hole in her calf. It looks for all the world like a squirming alien creature. She looks at it in horror for a few seconds and then tosses it away from her in disgust. And that's the end of that! We never find out what the hell the creature was or what it was doing in her leg. Was it an alien? Is the Witch an alien as well? That would certainly explain a lot, like the time travel and the bright lights at the end.

• In the original film, the locals say that in the 1780s and old woman named Elly Edward was accused of witchcraft, tied to the trunk of a tree in the Black Hills Forest and left to die. Her spirit returned and cursed anyone who entered the woods.

Suddenly in this movie we're told that Elly was strung up in a tree with heavy rocks tied to her hands and feet, which stretched out her limbs to unnatural proportions before she died.

So which is it, movie? Tied or stretched?

In the third act we get a very brief glimpse of the Witch as it lurks behind Lisa, and its arms and legs are freakishly elongated. In fact it looks more like some kind of alien than a witch. Is that look supposed to be the result of her limbs being stretched by the rocks as she hung from the trees?

• At the end of the film, James suddenly becomes an expert on the Blair Witch and her rules. When he and Lisa are trapped in the attic with the Witch, he tells her to stand in a corner and close her eyes, as catching even a glimpse of her will instantly kill them. And it works! The Witch is seemingly powerless against them as long as they follow these rules.

That's fine and all, but how the hell did James know any of this? A few hours earlier he poo-pooed the notion that she existed at all, and the minute he enters the house he starts figuring out loopholes in her powers.

• The big twist in Blair Witch is that the video that James sees at the beginning of the movie that kicked off the whole "Search For Heather" expedition— is actually the footage filmed by Lisa's camera in the final scenes.

Apparently the Witch took Lisa's camera, tossed it outside the house, and then used her superpowers to send it back into time so Lane would find it and upload it to the internet.

For someone who lived in the 1780s, the Blair Witch has a remarkably savvy understanding of modern technology and time travel.

Why she would send a tape back in time, and why she seemingly has a vendetta against James' family, is apparently none of our concern.

• Unintentionally hilarious moment: During the end credits there's a caption that reads, "Costume Design by Katia Stano."

That must have been a tough job. I bet she spent all of an hour grabbing clothes off the rack at Dick's Sporting Goods or Gander Mountain.

Blair Witch is big, loud and dumb, and lacks all the subtlety that made the original so influential. It trades plausibility for impossibility, as it even throws time travel into the mix! If you like watching characters wander through the forest and shriek one another's names, then this is the film for you. Stay out of this woods, and go watch the original again. I was going to give it a C-, but ultimately decided on a D+ for completely missing the point of the first film, and because I hate found footage films.

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