Let's not look at history with rose-colored glasses. The Blair Witch Project was not an amazing horror film.
Already I can feel hundreds of typical moviegoers nodding their heads in agreement and all my fellow film students picking up the stones with which they will end my contrarian life. Yes, The Blair Witch Project is a milestone in film history: it singlehandedly invented the found-footage genre, introduced 90s audiences to a new type of horror, and popularized budget filmmaking- it has one of the biggest net profits of all time, as it made over 400 times what it cost to produce.
The Blair Witch Project was an inventive idea that worked out well; a proof of concept for aspiring filmmakers without rich parents to fund their first screenplay. It has some brilliant improvised moments, but it's not the kind of horror that will keep you out of the woods for the rest of your life.
Now in 2016 we get Blair Witch, which sets out to make the same movie as the 1999 original but with a bigger budget and more actors. For a while it succeeds as a companion piece to the original- and then the third act collapses into an incomprehensible mess of loud noises and turning sharp corners. Blair Witch is what The Blair Witch Project could have been. Until it's not.
The narrative is almost exactly the same as the 1999 film's, but with a slightly altered reason to head into the Black Hills Forest. Forgettable protagonist #1 thinks there's a chance his sister- Heather Donahue from Project- is still alive and out there 17 years after her disappearance. Forgettable protagonist #2 decides to make a film class documentary out of the search. #3 and #4 tag along, along with some creepy hicks who live near the woods.
Creepy hicks believe in the legend of the Blair Witch, the four "sensible" friends do not. Cue the heated arguments concerning superstition and symbols, reminiscent of Project.
The only major difference in plot is the filmmaker's gear. While Heather had an old tape camera and clunky rigs, forgettable protagonist #2 has multiple 4k cameras and GPS outfitted earpiece cameras and a drone camera and expensive sound equipment and more (but the same old barely functional flashlights).
The heightened production values add a convincing element to the sequel that the original somewhat lacked. The woods are more vividly disconcerting, the looks of terror on the friends' faces are more contagious, and the visual effects are far more terrifying. Throughout the first two thirds of Blair Witch- which can best be described as the strong retread segment- the combination of bigger budget and self-aware humor is cogent.
But everything falls apart when Blair Witch turns up the fright dial. The group soon finds that eternal night has befallen the Black Hills Forest, thrusting the movie into permanent "horror films are scarier at night" mode. This idea may be clever on paper, but it robs the film of an important element: downtime.
The Blair Witch Project had downtime out of technical necessity: limited resources meant the filmmakers had to be economical with their horror, teasing us with just enough disturbing content to leave us wanting more. Horror master James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious) fills his downtime with gorgeous cinematography, complex characters, and detailed emotional depth: this technique lures the viewer in, quietly seducing us into the perfect position to be shaken to our core.
Blair Witch shouts and pushes us against a wall for thirty minutes with no reprieve. Eventually we learn to just stick to the wall and wait out the noisy onslaught.
The movie isn't awful and even manages to work while blatantly remaking Project, but it's disappointing given the talent behind it. Writer/director team Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard made two unique horror comedies- You're Next and The Guest- before this. It seems that removing the comedy also removed their personality.