The Blair Witch Project was the product of a more innocent time. Back in 1999, people believed the film might have been a genuine documentary about some kids being murdered by a witch. Actor Heather Donahue, who played a fictional version of herself, even complained that “being dead” had an adverse affect on her career.
It charted the psychological unravelling of a crew of film-makers exploring the legend of the Blair Witch. This follow-up (the maligned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 has been written out of existence) adheres to the structure of the original so tightly it verges on remake territory. This time Heather’s brother James (played by James Allen McCune, although he’s the only person acting under his own name) gathers a crew to go searching Maryland’s Black Hills for signs of his long-lost sibling.
The found footage genre has been well-trodden over the last 17 years, but the ubiquity of choppy, handheld video – now the focus of every news broadcast and Facebook feed – does lend Blair Witch 2016 a creepy familiarity. However, despite shooting for a low-fi aesthetic, the production values here are noticeably higher than in the original, and the scares are more carefully orchestrated, detracting from the terrifying chaos that made you feel so deeply embedded in the action.
Where this film really excels is its sound design: the dull thud of microphones thwacking off shrubbery becomes the source of jump-scares, while walkie-talkie distortion and the howl of recorded wind creates a dense, sinister aural backdrop.
The second half is an oscillating wave of dread and panic, ticking off various horror tropes along the way, including vertigo, claustrophobia and body-horror. By the finale there are ghosts running around and even some footage of the witch herself, which is horrifying at the time but banishes the crawling sensation that the film’s unseen evil might follow you home from the cinema. Whereas the Blair Witch Project had me sleeping with the light on for weeks, the 21st century version’s scares are strictly limited to the 90 minute run-time.
First published in City A.M.