TIME movies

The New Curse of Blair Witch: It’s Barely Scary

blairwitch-the-blair-witch-project-brandon-scott-corbin-reid-lionsgate
Chris Helcermanas–Benge—Lionsgate Peter (Brandon Scott, left), Ashley (Corbin Reid, center) and James (James Allen McCune, right) in BLAIR WITCH.

In the Venn diagram representing people who adore horror movies and those who take them so deeply to heart that they can barely watch them, the intersection is a jagged oval shaped something like the mouth of the guy in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Some horror fans can devour the grisliest, most upsetting pictures like bonbons and still drift off to dreamland like newborn babes. Others inhale the essence of a horror film so deeply that they face nighttime with dread. I think I’m mostly in that Venn center, the land of those who are easily freaked out. But Blair Witch–the “secret” sequel to the 1999 low-budget hit The Blair Witch Project–left me feeling … nothing. Was I supposed to be scared by this thing?

The Blair Witch Project, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, was a mostly improvised affair in which three characters venture into the woods near Burkittsville, Md., to make a documentary about the legend of a witch who supposedly haunted the place. The group disappeared, leaving just a scattering of video equipment: the film was presented as footage recovered from the doomed expedition, and some early viewers of the film took the bait, believing the footage was real. If the picture didn’t–and still doesn’t–hang together as great craftsmanship, it at least stands as a primo example of horror gimcrackery, and for better or, more likely, worse, it ushered in the era of the found-footage horror movie.

Until recently, almost no one knew that a Blair Witch Project sequel was coming. (The 2000 cash-in quickie Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 doesn’t count.) The new Blair Witch–directed by horror-genre whiz kid Adam Wingard, whose credits include segments in two of the V/H/S movies as well as the 2011 home-invasion thriller You’re Next–was shot under the title The Woods, and the public wasn’t aware of its connection to The Blair Witch Project until it was shown at Comic-Con in July.

Blair Witch is a true sequel, building on specific elements of the first film, even re-creating rather lovingly the original brushy-gloomy forest vegetation. James (James Allen McCune) is a young man who has never gotten over the disappearance of his older sister Heather (played, in the first movie, by Heather Donohue) in those woods. What really happened to her? Might she still be alive? He and a friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), plan an expedition to the deadly forest–Lisa will record the excursion for her documentary class. Two other friends, Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott), come along, and the group reluctantly allows two Burkittsville locals, Lane and Talia (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), to act as guides.

And so these six set out. In the early scenes, we get the usual bickering among characters–and the usual talking behind others’ backs–to establish those film-school necessities known as relationship dynamics. Purportedly creepy–or at least icky–stuff starts happening. As the six ford an innocent-looking stream, Ashley screams out in pain. She has stepped, she says, on some sort of “moving rock.” Girly-like, she can’t bear to look at the gash in her foot, but we see it up close, in all its raggedy crimson glory. The wound is deemed not too bad and bandaged. Later–it’s hard to say if hours or days have passed, as the spell of the forest bends the group’s sense of time–that wound will turn into something decidedly worse than not too bad.

Blair Witch, like the earlier movie, is supposedly cobbled together from found footage, though this time around, the technology is far more sophisticated. The cameras and recording equipment carried by the group are so shrunken and lightweight that they barely register as a presence, and the gang has brought along a drone to help with navigation. But as Blair Witch reminds us, loudly and repeatedly, not even the best technology in the world can protect us from pure evil, and its signs mount by the minute. The spooky twig figures from the first movie reappear, at first in a sort of cute-looking version, like a kids’ craft project, and later in a more threatening incarnation. The forest rings with the sound of branches–and other things–cracking ominously. There are the usual “We’ve been walking in a circle!” exclamations. There is much dazed stumbling through the brush and yelling of names. Suddenly, a familiar house looms on the landscape. There, bad stuff happens.

The idea behind Blair Witch is that millennials (as these characters are) are the seen-it-all generation, so blasé about navigating life through their cell-phone cameras–recording it instead of actually living it–that the only way to shake a response out of them is to send them into an evil forest. If I were a millennial, I’d feel condescended to. As a nonmillennial, I just felt bored. Blair Witch does offer a bear cub’s pawful of tense, intense moments, and there are some decidedly grisly bits. (Keep an eye on that foot wound.)

But I kept waiting for a truly terrifying thing to happen–something beyond the sound of young people whimpering, or the look of their grimy, bloodied faces as they’re ambushed by an unexpected someone or something–and just as I thought that thing must surely be right around the corner, the credits began rolling. Your enjoyment of Blair Witch depends mightily on your tolerance for watching annoying people get the pants scared off them in the woods. Me? That night, I slept like a baby.


This appears in the September 26, 2016 issue of TIME.
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