Blair Witch: Movie Review

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Synopsis:
15 years after the initial trek into the woods of Burkittsville ended in witch-related deaths, disappearances and map-kicking, a new video surfaces that shows a figure that may sorta/kinda look like Heather Donahue, but only if you squint in the right light.  The tape is sent to Heather’s younger brother, James.  He has sought answers about her disappearance for years.  And so, armed with new information, James heads out into the woods of Burkittsville with a few friends and a lot of cameras.

Thoughts:
Let’s get this out of the way early: the image of Heather in the newly surfaced video doesn’t really look much like Heather.  I know James was desperate for something to cling to, but he’s really grasping at straws.  I get it, James.  I get it.  Sisters are awesome.

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I went into this movie with high expectations.  I tried to bring them down a little, but I couldn’t help myself.  I loved the original Blair Witch Project, and the surprise unveiling of this one at Comic Con really set a high excitement level.  I even closed my eyes every time a trailer came on so nothing would be ruined for me.  I took a half day off work the day it came out just so I could see it without having any of it ruined for me.  I was all in.

I walked out of the theater thinking, “Yeah, that was a good movie,” but I didn’t love it like I hoped I would.  Part of that is on me.  It’s rare to exceed such high expectations.  It can happen (hello, Mad Max: Fury Road), but it’s rare for me.  I let the hype get away from me.

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There were entirely too many unnecessary jump scares, and most of them were of the same variety.  Namely, the old, “there was no one next to me NOW THERE IS SOMEONE NEXT TO ME LOUD NOISES,” trick.  That’s fine once or twice, but they used it a lot in this movie, which is ridiculous when you realize it’s a movie about a group of people trapped in the woods by a time-bending witch.  Being lost in the woods is an inherently scary scenario; being stalked by a witch only makes that scenario more terrifying.  There’s no need to rely on jump scares to frighten the audience, and yet that’s exactly what Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett did.  A well-executed jump scare is one thing, but a lot of these just felt lazy, and that bothered me.

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Let me get one more negative-that’s-not-really-a-negative out of the way before moving on.
The first Blair Witch came at a perfect time.  It was the infancy of the internet and, though there were found footage movies before it, The Blair Witch Project captured the attention of a ton of people and had large groups asking if the events on the screen actually happened.  I’ll admit to being drawn into that story, and I was sufficiently freaked out by the film for a long time afterwards.  (It didn’t help that I went camping a few days after seeing it for the first time.)  In this day and age, there’s not really a way to recreate that.  I know that.  Wingard & Barrett didn’t even attempt to pull a trick like that.  Still, The Blair Witch Project hit me pretty hard in my pre-horror days, and I still carry that feeling with me.  I knew this wouldn’t do the same thing, but I had hopes that it would affect me in a somewhat similar way.  It didn’t, but that’s my own problem, not a failing of the movie.

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(Fun found footage aside: Ruggero Deodato, the director of Cannibal Holocaust, was taken to court for charges of murder after that film was released.  The actors were forbidden from doing interviews after the movie was released to convince people that the footage was real.  Apparently it worked a little too well.)

I just said a bunch of kind of negative things, but I actually really enjoyed this movie.  So let’s get to that part.

The shaky cam was much less shaky in this movie than the original.  That’s a product of the updated technology.  Instead of the images coming to us via hand-held cameras while the operators stumbled through the forest, we got ear-piece cameras and cameras mounted to trees and a handful of somewhat useless drone shots.  We were guided through the woods in Burkittsville with a steadier hand.  Instead of feeling like I was being kicked around, it allowed this to feel more like a haunted house movie in the woods.  I was focusing more on the surroundings and less on blurry images of trees as they rushed past.  And, though those shots didn’t always pay off like I thought they would, it kept me on the edge of my seat.  I kept waiting for images to emerge from the darkness.  I stared into the bushes through black and white night vision looking for the slightest bit of movement.  There were a lot of shots in this movie that freaked me out without anything actually happening.

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The main four characters were likable and relatable.  I didn’t agree with James’ reasons for going into the forest, but I could see why he was doing it.  If you can understand that, the motivations of everyone else made sense.  They were a close-knit group of friends who truly seemed to care for each other.  They also seemed like actual friends in the way they interacted with each other.  I laughed out loud several times at their conversations.
Even the two outsiders – Lane and Talia – were perfectly fine characters.  We get a feel for them in roughly 30 seconds and have plenty of reasons to be a little wary of them.  Despite some warning signs – a Confederate flag in Maryland is a red flag if I’ve ever seen one – the group allows them to tag along, mainly because James will do anything if it means finding out what happened to his sister.
There were reasons not to like them and to be distrustful of them – more Lane than Talia – but they loved each other and just wanted to go home once everything started going crazy.  It’s somewhat rare to have a cast like this without one of them being unbearably annoying.
I have some questions about Lane’s ability to grow a beard, but that’s a conversation for another time.

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Like most found footage movies, we got a decent amount of slow build-up to the action.  Lots of footage of our characters trying out the cameras in fits-and-starts.  Lots of small snippets of conversations that were caught.  That’s to be expected in found footage and it didn’t bother me.  I’m in it for the payoff.  How does the movie do when things turn south?
That’s when this movie shines.  When things go south, they go south in a hurry.  We get some “separated from the group” slasher kills.  We get some Final Destination deaths.  We get plenty of “no no no no no,” moments.  We get some terrific new entries into the Blair Witch mythology.

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By the time we finally get to the house from the end of The Blair Witch Project, my nerves were already on the verge of being shot.  I begged them not to go in, knowing that the witch wouldn’t give them another choice.  The house itself was a labyrinth of horror, featuring one scene that found me covering my mouth and shaking my head.  The last 15-20 minutes of the movie are spent in the house and it is pure madness.  When I wasn’t covering my mouth I was grinning like an idiot.

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Blair Witch isn’t perfect, but the finale is superb.  If you haven’t seen it yet, lower your expectations a bit and prepare to have a good time.  I had a lot of fun with it.  The more I think about it, the more I just want to see it again.

Rating: 4/5

The Guest Review

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2014

Directed By Adam Wingard

Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe & Sheila Kelly

David (Stevens) is the kind of guy you want to have over for dinner. He is kind and cordial when he shows up on the doorstep of the Peterson family, claims to be a dear friend to their son who died in combat and they welcome him with open arms. This stranger is allowed to stay in their home and become a part of their lives. Shortly after his arrival people begin to die and Anna (Monroe) wonders if there is more to David than he lets on.

A soldier on leave befriends the family of a fallen comrade, only to become a threat to all around him when it’s revealed he’s hiding dangerous secrets from his past.

Adam Wingard – the director behind You’re Next and the “Phase 1 Clinical Trials” segment of V/H/S 2 – certainly knows how to build tension and create an unsettling atmosphere. All of his films are situated in a hyper reality that is very similar to our world, but everything is just slightly off. The rules and physics of his worlds are similar enough to our reality that you are pulled in but you are never allowed to feel comfortable.

Featuring music from Clan of Xymox and Sisters of Mercy, the score and soundtrack give the film a driving synth rhythm that feels like something from 70s or 80s John Carpenter, with a healthy dose of Goblin thrown in for good measure.

Dan Stevens gives a stunning performance as David. He had to be both charming and intimidating and that’s a difficult tightrope to walk. If you lean to far to either side, the character would have been unbelievable. Stevens has the physical presence to intimidate most but he has that boy-next-door charm that would allow you to throw him the keys to your new car without thinking twice about it. We as the audience all know that David is not to be trusted, and that’s where Anna steps in. She is our voice. She is the one person who smells bullshit, and Maika does a great job in this role. She brings a surprising amount of humor to this otherwise bleak tale. She is our voice and our relief.

The film is clearly an indictment on what president Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the Military Industrial Complex but nothing about the film comes across as heavy handed or preachy. This is a film with a subtle but important message and the action/sci-fi elements make the medicine go down smoothly. Constant unquestioned military action is not patriotic; in fact I would go as far as to say its jingoistic and dangerous. Soapbox portion is now over, we can resume with the article.

The Guest is steeped in genre tropes but transcends any genre. In the same way Night of the Living Dead is a zombie horror film, this film is far more than conventional labeling. The Guest opens in theaters Sept 17th.