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Blair Witch review: to all the scares you've loved before

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Director Adam Wingard revives the original found footage horror classic

Courtesy of TIFF

Movie trends run in cycles, and perhaps the most fascinating thing about the torrent of found footage movies that have assaulted audiences over the past decade is the one franchise that’s been missing: The Blair Witch Project. Back in 1999, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez terrified audiences with a film that was purportedly cut together from footage shot by three would-be documentarians that vanished in the Maryland woods. It was raw, scary, and a massive hit that seemed to kick off an unstoppable force — until a rushed-out-the-door sequel killed the franchise dead the very next year.

That’s the legacy that writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) are working with in their latest collaboration, Blair Witch. A direct sequel to the first film, it picks up as the younger brother of one of those original missing documentarians becomes convinced his sister may still be alive somewhere in the woods. Obviously, things go very wrong from there, but Blair Witch does one thing undeniably right: reminding the audience why they were freaked out by this franchise in the first place.

James Allen McCune (Shameless) plays James, who’s intrigued when new footage is found in the Maryland woods that show someone that could be his missing sister. His friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez, next up in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land) is a film student that needs a subject for her documentary, and decides following James as he investigates the forest — along with their friends Ashley and Peter (Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott) — is the perfect fit. The gang is generally skeptical of the legends, but their two gothed-out guides (Wes Robinson and The Following’s Valorie Curry) are true believers, and after spending a night in the woods, the familiar creepy noises and stick bundles start showing up.

Its scares are incredibly faithful to the original

Setting up a modern found footage movie requires going through some pretty rote beats, but Barrett and Wingard make it as painless as possible by establishing some strong character dynamics — there’s a great will-they-or-won’t-they aspect to James and Lisa’s chemistry — and adding some flashy additions like a drone and a futuristic earpiece camera to the usual assortment of camcorder and GoPro-style footage we’re used to seeing. They’re small details, but they pay off throughout the movie, the latter giving Wingard the opportunity to use new angles and more traditional cutting techniques while still hewing to the found footage concept.

But that’s all finesse, and what a film like this has to deliver on in the most basic sense are scares. Blair Witch is incredibly faithful to the original film in terms of how it goes about getting under the audience’s skin: the sounds of wood creaking in the forest; the piles of rocks; those mysterious bundles of sticks that show up in the trees. It’s all there, like a greatest hits version of the first film, and there’s some real joy in falling back to those moments simply because they echo the best parts of the original movie. That’s not to say there aren’t additions — Wingard and Barrett add a creepy body horror element to the mix early on, and thanks to the forceful sound design there’s a greater sense of some massive, physical thing in the forest than the first film ever had — but Blair Witch is at its best when it’s honoring what has come before.

Courtesy of TIFF

The one thing that Blair Witch can’t replicate, however, is the viral marking and mystery that surrounded the original. Back then, before the internet spoiled everything and trailers were dissected frame by frame, there really was a sense that this somehow, some way, might be real footage. Just the suggestion of the idea was enough to amplify what happened on-screen — and let’s be honest, very little happened on-screen in The Blair Witch Project — into something terrifying on an almost existential level. A horror movie can only scare you if you buy into the horror movie, and the unanswered question about that movie’s veracity was a powerful way for people to jump on and take the ride.

No film can replicate the mystery that surrounded 'The Blair Witch Project'

It’s unlikely that we’ll see that kind of War of the Worlds-esque sleight of hand again anytime soon, and as a result the new Blair Witch can only go so far. But it’s telling that there’s so much fun to be had in the way it echoes the original film. We’re in the middle of a nostalgic period that seems to be subtly pushing back against the complexity of our world today, where adopting the simplicity of techniques and styles past — be it the practical effects of The Force Awakens or the retro-Spielbergian thrills of Stranger Things — is a huge part of the allure. Those films and TV shows will never surpass the ones they’re paying homage to, and the same is true of Blair Witch. But that doesn’t mean it can’t offer some spooky fun.

Blair Witch opens September 16th.