Look at that image above and tell me what you think it should be rated. I'll wait. (This parenthetical expression represents the passing of time. You need to trust that I waited before writing this.) It's R. Of course it's R. You didn't need to use the context clue of the red font to show that this movie is R. Also, let's sympathize with the blogger about having to find a still from the movie that is both telling of what it is like to view the film and be somewhat aesthetically pleasing. This was a rough one.
DIRECTOR: Adam Wingard
I don't know if my opinion on something became so wavery after sleeping on it. I finished watching this movie yesterday. Complete transparency, I had a moderately good time watching it. But I was critical the entire time. I know the direction that this review is going to go. This is the hardest thing for me to review. I know that the movie is bad. Heck, the movie is even boring at times. But there was something remarkably watchable about the whole thing. So where does that leave me as a critic? I'm going to try my best to convey my thought process on this movie and please understand that sometimes my brain just likes not-amazing things.
One of the big things about what I now have to refer to as "the Blair Witch franchise" is that most of the movie is about the experience leading into the actual watching of the movie. When The Blair Witch Project was released, not only was it the birth of found footage movies, but it was also the rebirth of viral marketing. (I refuse to give them the title of "creator of viral marketing." Look at some Hitchcock and B-movie sci-fi.) Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 kind of dropped the ball on that. The Blair Witch Project was kind of genius in a really goofy way. It convinced everyone that there was footage of a witch murdering kids in the woods. Sure, there was no actual footage of the witch, but it was very convincing for those first audiences. Heck, people were kind of dumb back then. A few days into its release, the actors started showing up on talk shows despite the fact that their characters were all butchered in the film. That marketing is what makes that movie scary. The word of mouth on that film worked so well that everyone tried mustering the courage to see it. When Book of Shadows failed to do that, people saw how weak the premise actually was. It didn't help that Book of Shadows abandoned the format of the found footage horror movie. I kind of secretly admired the fact that they weren't going to carbon copy the first film, but they also shouldn't have rushed the movie into production to capitalize on the success of the first film. The cool part about the third film in the franchise, questionably named Blair Witch, the casual term used to describe the first film, is that it was a huge secret that the movie was being made. They actually had a release for the trailer at Comic Con with something, like, The Woods as its title. They had fake posters and marketing and everything. They put the lights down, showed the trailer. It was clearly a Blair Witch Project sequel and the lights came up. All of the marketing showed the little stick creatures and everyone lost their minds.
While this marketing move wasn't as revolutionary as the first films, it did get me really jazzed to see the movie. People were saying it was super scary and I agree. There are some very fun scary moments in this movie. But also, the reason that it works is that it is a return to form. It is almost the first movie exactly. That's the same issue that the Paranormal Activity movies experience. Every time that they veer from the tested path, no one cares. The found footage subgenre of horror is always problematic because it inherently tests our plausible deniability. I do like that Blair Witch has found a kinda-sorta explanation for why the events of this movie justify the exact same narrative as the first one. They even went a step above and beyond explaining why everything is being recorded. I always have a problem with found footage movies that have everything filmed. There is always that moment in the movie when the protagonist would abandon his or her camera. This movie at least makes a moderate amount of horror movie sense. I'm not saying reality. Oh, I can't ever claim reality. But it does make sense in the horror movie universe. This kind of brings me to an interesting point about the nature of technology with the found footage horror movie. Horror movies, perhaps more than any other genre of film, must deal with technological advances more than other movies. As life becomes more and more convenient and more and more connected, audiences have to ask why the characters aren't using such and such devices to solve their problems. This creates a double-edged sword. Movies like Blair Witch now have to have scenes that address these new advances in science, dating their predecessors and themselves. These scenes are trying. This movie uses the drone and I roll my eyes pretty hard. But what the advancement of technology does in the context of the supernatural is ramp up the stakes for the characters. It seems like the more prepped people are to take on the supernatural, the more intense the supernatural responds. Sometimes it is silly, but I think that Blair Witch kind of pulls it off. The drone thing is dumb, but it gives the Witch a new ability: the power to mess with time. That's pretty cool.
I love the fact that the movie just abandoned chronology. There is this weird element of brain-breaking that isn't fully explored, but that's almost for the best. I would hate the moment where the characters discussed how time is passing the way it is. Having time move malleably is far more interesting because I don't necessarily know the rules. The movie establishes pretty well that insane that malleability is, but doesn't necessarily give it constraints. But this also brings in something philosophical about the nature of supernatural horror that I don't like to think about very often: the sentience of the creature. For all intents and purposes --and I'd like to establish that I just had this epiphany while watching Blair Witch --the woods in this story is just a transposing of the haunted house subgenre. The rules of the haunted house just apply to this as opposed to an actual witch story. The woods are haunted. Geography is fluid. There are rules for the haunting (apparently). But why does the ghost / witch need to scare the characters? In a haunted house, I still have a problem with this, but I can at least shut my brain off a little bit to let the story progress. One of the theories that I have heard is that the ghost / witch in these movies feeds on belief in it (Paranormal Activity again!), thus the inhabitants of the house / woods need to be afraid before it can kill it. The ghost has power over the house and little else, so to kill the visitors, it must first gain power from the inhabitants' fear. I don't know if that works with Blair Witch. The Witch clearly has insane abilities. Manipulation of time is a huge superpower. This is a large area of land. How much power does this thing need, especially if it is knocking over trees left and right? A tree falling on someone is a pretty horrific death. Clearly, the Witch has this ability from the start. Also, the choreography of these frights takes me out of the movie. LIGHT SPOILER: The Witch launches one of the tents high into the air, causing the surrounding people to flee. As they run, the tent lands in front of them, causing them to scream some more. Is she up in a tree, just orchestrating the whole thing? Like, "This'll really scare them." The idea of a ghost moving beyond the simple attempt to communicate just gets ridiculous the more I think about it.
I think I know why I'm so torn on this movie. The movie is a complete copy of the first film with the exception of two amazing and clever moments. These moments caught me off guard and impressed me. I'm going to be vague about it, but I'm talking about the destruction of the stick doll and how the protagonist gets out of the cellar sequences. These moments are great, but they don't make up a whole movie. It is a little painful to realize that you have already seen this movie before and that everything on screen is just a rehash of something that was done previously. This movie, like many others, hits just too many of the same beats of movies that are considered good. I don't even really love the original Blair Witch Project anymore. I think it was a cool experiment and I loved all of the hype behind it, but now I'm watching a sequel that is covering a lot of the same ground. The reason I liked those two sequences was because it was something new. The other thing that this movie included, and I kind of know why they did, was to show the Witch very briefly. At this point, the audience has earned it. To tease an invisible witch again would be riot inducing. That was one of the complaints of the first low budget movie was that they never showed the witch. I still think that was the right choice in the first movie and I sympathize with the filmmakers having to show this thing again. But it, as much as I too wanted to see it, somehow cheapens the entire experience.
Finally, I have to talk about the acting. It was pretty bad. The problem is with the technology. I hate shaky cam in found footage. Cloverfield gave me the biggest nausea headache of any film I've ever film, but it does hide a lot of poor acting choices. This movie uses mounted headsets, which means it just feels like a movie at many times. There are times where actors were speaking directly to the camera (because they were talking to the person wearing the mounted camera) and it just felt really awkward. The thing that sells found footage movies is the idea that these are real people. The actors had some pretty rough dialogue and there were a lot of stereotypes being enforced that were odd. Also, I don't really get behind the found footage movie that has a bunch of beautiful people behind it. I'm not saying to go out and watch Bad Ben (a movie that Amazon Prime recommended I watched next. YouTube the trailer so we can laugh smugly together), but this felt like another CW casting situation. It's a little rough and there were so many moments where it didn't feel authentic.
But again, I didn't hate it. I see all of its faults and I see what they tried to do. There are a few successes, but many of the problems stem from simply being an unnecessary sequel. I hope they don't capitalize on this one and make one two years from now. I guess I'll be writing a review in a decade and seeing how that turns out. (Did you notice that my hypocrisy popped in there? I griped about not wanting another one, but undoubtedly said that I'm going to see it. Maybe I'll grow between now and then, but I doubt it. Also, yay for me for thinking that I'll stick with this blog a decade from now. Hopefully the world isn't over by then.)
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.