“Hey, guys, my sister and her friends disappeared and probably died horribly when they went camping in those cursed woods. Despite the massive search for them and it being twenty years later, this blurry YouTube video makes me think she may somehow still be alive in there! Wanna go camping with me to try and find them?”
I envy the very first audience that saw this movie at San Diego Comic-Con. Up until that screening three months ago, this movie was known only as The Woods and any connection with The Blair Witch Project was kept secret. That audience wouldn’t have realized the truth until fifteen minutes in when the characters first utter the words “Blair Witch.” Or, if you’re a big nerd for the original like me, when they pass a sign that says “Welcome to Burkittsville.” That would have been a thrill.
Set twenty years after the events of The Blair Witch Project, Blair Witch follows James Donahue’s quest to find his sister, Heather, the documentarian from the original film. (This film also completely ignores the existence of Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, as we all should.) Armed with modern technology, he and a group of friends set out into the cursed woods and…well, things pretty much go downhill from there. Similar to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this movie is in essence both a sequel and a remake. It’s most definitely related to the original, yet it follows the same flow and story structure very closely while updating it for a new audience. You don’t need to have even heard of the original to enjoy this one, but if you have, you’ll be rewarded for it.
The movie has a few problems scattered throughout. They have a drone-mounted camera with them that is never used for anything terribly interesting – definitely a missed opportunity. A sequence of body horror is squirm-inducing, to be sure, but ultimately feels pointless. While horror movie victims are known for the occasional stupid choice, one character’s decision to climb a tree felt so incredibly ill-advised I couldn’t help but slap my forehead. Lastly, the very final moments of the film fall flat, especially when the entire climax leading up to those final moments is so riveting. Ultimately, though, these don’t bring the movie down for me because, overall, it pretty effectively taps into what scares me.
The horror movies that usually get under my skin are the supernatural ones. A good home invasion or torture porn flick can be a fun time, but it’s when the protagonists have to contend with seemingly omnipotent powers they don’t understand that I am most likely to get unsettled. Unexplainable occurrences, things that make you question reality, enemies you have no hope of fighting against, times when something can’t be and yet it is…that’s what sets me on edge.
Blair Witch works well with these elements. When a pair of characters who had been separated from the main group for a single day return, clearly mad with fright and claiming they’ve been wandering for five days and haven’t seen the sun that entire time, my mind reels. Invisible forces throwing things around, geography being distorted, monstrous sounds of impossible size, and frightening glimpses of something all prove that these people are mere toys for the Blair Witch. They are being manipulated by a force infinitely more powerful than they know and that puts me on the edge of my seat. Despite the handful of missteps mentioned above, the fear ratchets up nicely, leading up to a white-knuckle finale in the infamous house. It is possible to interpret the events of the original The Blair Witch Project as being completely ordinary with nothing supernatural involved. In this movie, it is clear that the Blair Witch is very real and very pissed.
The Blair Witch Project is the grandaddy of modern found-footage movies. Its DNA can be seen in Cloverfield, V/H/S, [REC], Troll Hunter, Unfriended, Diary Of the Dead, and even End Of Watch. Now we’ve come full circle. Where Paranormal Activity felt like it was chasing The Blair Witch Project, Blair Witch feels like it’s chasing Paranormal Activity. If you like those types of movies, you’ll be glad to know that this is definitely a good one of those. Even better for me, and other fans of the original and its mythology, this sequel deftly adds new wrinkles. It ups the game without betraying the spirit of the original. It’s not a transformative experience or a watershed moment the way its predecessor was. It never really could be. But it definitely is an exhilarating horror flick that I really enjoyed.
Other movies I watched this week (potential minor spoilers):
High-Rise – Tom Hiddleston lives in a skyscraper apartment building that promises to provide everything you could need in a single building. Tensions rise between the lower-income families of the lower floors and the elite rich of the higher floors. Things spiral out of control in strange and dreamlike ways in this very strange, disjointed, avant-garde tale. This impressionistic painting of a movie uses too much metaphor and oddity and not enough grounded points of view for my tastes. For a sci-fi examination of the haves and the have-nots, watch Snowpiercer instead. That might be a less nuanced movie, but it sure is a more entertaining one.
Iron Sky – Nazis who have been hiding on the dark side of the moon since 1942 plan their attack on Earth. Yeah, this is that kind of film. With acting and special effects that would make Sharknado proud, this is not a good movie. But is it a fun movie? There is a certain inappropriate humor to a black man in whiteface and space zeppelins fighting the U.S.S. George W. Bush in orbit, but the tongue-in-cheek humor doesn’t land enough to make this worth sitting through.
Eddie the Eagle – Based on the true story of an unlikely British Olympian in the 1988 winter Olympics. Stock characters run through every well-worn beat from every underdog sports movie you can think of. Despite that, entertaining and earnest performances from the leads keep the movie from being tiresome. It may not do anything new for the genre, but it’s a fun example of it. If you liked Cool Runnings, which also took place during these same Olympics, then you’ll enjoy this.
Crimson Peak – In the late 1800s, a young woman falls in love with Tom Hiddleston and moves in with him and his sister, Jessica Chastain, in their mansion. Unfortunately, the young woman has the ability to see ghosts, and there are plenty in the mansion trying to communicate with her in horrifying ways. In the tradition of gothic romances, this movie is less about scares and gore and more about using supernatural elements to unfold a macabre mystery. With incredible sets and costumes, unsettling ghosts, and beautiful cinematography, this morbid movie is a feast for the eyes. This dark tale is worth seeing.
Paper Towns – In this quirky coming-of-age story, a high school senior’s lifelong crush disappears. As she has a tendency to run away on occasion, most people just assume she’ll be back in time. But when he finds a trail of clues to her whereabouts, he becomes convinced that he is meant to go find her. The message – that life does not always revolve around you and you shouldn’t take the important people around you for granted – gets a little muddled in the delivery. It’s cute on the surface, but doesn’t have anything going on beneath it. The most interesting thing I got out of this movie was learning that paper towns are a real thing and that Agloe, New York is a real fake place.
Steve Jobs – Michael Fassbender plays the late Steve Jobs at three different points in his career. Each segment takes place just before the launch of a new product in 1984, 1988, and 1998. Fassbender is excellent in portraying a man who is egotistical, visionary, controlling, meticulous, crazy, genius, and an asshole. The rest of the cast also delivers strong, impassioned performances. In this movie that is nothing more than a series of conversations, editing and music are used to make heated arguments feel intense and kinetic, almost as if they were action scenes with words. The real star here is writer Aaron Sorkin; his quick-witted and dynamic dialogue shines and reminds me why I liked the short-lived TV show Sports Night. (Does anyone remember Sports Night? No? Just me?)
Man Bites Dog – This 1992 black and white French film is shot entirely from the point of view of a documentary team following a serial killer. As the monstrous man nonchalantly talks about poetry, why he likes killing old people, architecture, and how much weight you need to tie to a child to be sure its corpse sinks, the film crew slowly becomes more and more involved with his vile acts. This commentary on how media can desensitize us to violence doesn’t have a single character to like and overstays its welcome. For a better movie with the same gimmick of following around a killer as if it’s any other profession, watch Behind the Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon.
The Witch – A family trying to survive in 1630s New England is torn apart by paranoia when they believe a witch has cursed them. This chillingly spooky film is a beautiful example of how style, atmosphere, and great performances can be more effective than CGI monstrosities. My heart breaks as the family starts pointing fingers and my fear rises as things get stranger. This is an incredibly effective slow burn of a scary story that kept me engaged and frightened until the final frame.
Goodfellas – Based on a true story, Ray Liotta stars as a wiseguy who’s been in the mob all his life. As the narrator, he weaves in and out of stories about rising up the ranks, friends that get out of hand, big heists, hits, and how he eventually ratted his buddies out to the feds. This movie is more concerned with the interpersonal relationships than it is the actual criminal activities. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for Liotta’s performance, or that of anyone else’s, enough for that to be satisfying. This, I believe, is meant to be a more grounded and realistic view of the mob. I guess I just prefer the heightened Hollywood stereotypes this movie spawned.
Green Room – Anton Yelchin and his band witness a murder and find themselves trapped in the local hangout of a group of neo-Nazi skinhead types led by Patrick Stewart. Stuck in the green room of the venue, they struggle to find a way out of the situation while the skinheads continually try to break in. Graphic violence is presented in a disturbingly casual manner. Protagonists and antagonists do not feel like heightened caricatures, but instead react in very believable ways. This grounding in reality makes the entire thing feel frighteningly plausible. This little movie is a very effective tense thriller. Extra points for such an unusual role for Patrick Stewart.
The Fly (1986) – This remake wastes no time in setting up Jeff Goldblum and his teleportation experiments gone wrong. When he accidentally becomes spliced with a house fly, he starts to grotesquely transform and become more mentally unhinged. Poor Geena Davis gets to scream a lot. Goldblum is perfect casting for a scientist struggling with himself; his unique voice and cadence lends itself to the oddity of the situation. What really makes this movie is director David Cronenberg and his penchant for body horror. He revels in grossing out the audience with ripping skin, piles of deformed meat that are still twitching, and acidic bile. Yum! All in all, this is a pretty entertaining ick-fest.
The Fly II – Just as 1959’s Return Of the Fly was a more traditional monster movie than its predecessor, so too is this one. Eric Stoltz replays many of the same beats from the original movie, right down to the same final solution to cure himself. The only difference here is that he spends considerably more time running around killing people as a full-fledged humanoid fly monster puppet thing during the climax. While that is a fun and welcome addition, the rest of the movie is such a boring rehash that it isn’t worth waiting around for.
American Hustle – A pair of con artists agree to work with the FBI instead of going to jail. They plan to use their grifting skills to fry some bigger fish. Love quadrangles and double-crosses spiral out of control as they go after corrupt politicians and mobsters. With Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and a litany of ridiculous ’70s hairstyles, this movie features some of the strongest actors of modern cinema. This crew keeps every scene engaging even when the story itself lags a little. All in all, a satisfying movie about bad people that is worth seeing for the cast alone.
The Artist – A modern day silent movie about a silent movie actor who falls on hard times when he can’t transition to talkies. The story itself is very straightforward, but it is performed well. This movie is most interesting simply as a cinematic exercise and an homage to the films of yesteryear. I got a kick out of seeing everyone acting with large motions and slightly exaggerated expressions to communicate without sound. As a lover of movies, I enjoyed this movie about movies. I don’t think this oddity is for everyone, but I really liked it.
Modern Times – An actual silent film starring Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin has difficulty finding his way in the modern industrialized world and finds himself bouncing between jobs and jail. Hijinks ensue. This movie’s pacing, as is common with these older movies, just wasn’t for me. I simply am not in for its full run time. That said, any individual scene or set piece taken by itself is a delight. Getting stuck in oversized gears and roller skating blindfolded precariously near a ledge brings a smile to my face and demonstrates Chaplin’s exceptional knack for physical comedy. I wouldn’t recommend most people watch this in one sitting, but it’s worth seeing bits of it to see a classic film star at work.