People will have different reactions to the new “The Blair Witch Project” sequel, but one thing we all probably can agree on is this: We need to hurry up and clear-cut that haunted forest in Maryland, once and for all. Even environmentalists would agree – what about a nice big parking lot? – after sitting through the harrowing “Blair Witch,” which takes place in the same creepy woods where three student filmmakers disappeared in the original.
Why either a new batch of kids or a new clutch of filmmakers have suited up to tramp around the Black Hills in search of the same angry witch is puzzling. There’s an old saying that you can never go home again. It is advice neither team took – and so they’re doomed. “Blair Witch ” borrows most of the skeleton of the original 1999 film but ups the scariness at the cost of coherency. Director Adam Wingard also strays from the found-footage conceit and sometimes doesn’t even pretend that what we’re seeing was shot by anyone in the group. That suspension of disbelief is important or why try a direct sequel at all? (By the way, we’re totally ignoring the quickie 2000 sequel “Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.”)
First a primer, in case you just wandered out of a haunted forest: “The Blair Witch Project” was a cultural sensation. Shot for an initial budget of less than $50,000, it grossed just shy of $248 million, sparking trends in both found-footage horror and shaky-camera confessionals. Its faux-documentary premise was that it was just stitched-together footage taken by three student filmmakers who went missing while witch hunting. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez did such a good job that audiences initially really believed three souls had been lost.
The original was quaint horror by today’s standard, more psychologically traumatizing and not at all gory. The three students gradually turn on each other in the face of escalating hysteria – really just piles of rocks and weird stick figures. It ended with a snot-nosed, half-faced apology by one victim. In the sequel, her brother (James Allen McCune) is determined to find out what happened 20 years ago. So he and three friends (Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid), incredibly, suit up to tramp in the same creepy woods.
By this time it should be clear that no one should ever wander off alone, even to relieve themselves. Do these kids listen? This time, our heroes are joined by some locals (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) who know the woods – but may have their own agenda – and writer Simon Barrett has weaved in a sly lesson about our confidence in high-tech gizmos. The group seems invincible with their GPS, digital walkie-talkies, memory cards and earpieces. (They even brought a drone.) Good luck with that, guys.
This sequel gets progressively messy while “The Blair Witch Project” grew progressively taut. In this movie, the filmmakers throw out a lot of elements that are dead ends – double-crossing, infections and time shifts. The film really only rights itself in the final, breathtaking sequences when the title character applies her special brand of pressure.
So, for those keeping score, it’s: Nosey Kids, 0; Blair Witch, 2. It’s time to bulldoze, right? “Blair Witch,” a Lionsgate, Vertigo Entertainment, Room 101 and Snoot Entertainment release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language, terror and some disturbing images.” Running time: 89 minutes. Two stars out of four.-AP