A group of college students venture into the Black Hills Forest in Maryland to uncover the mysteries surrounding the disappearance of their friend's sister, who many believe is connected to the legend of the Blair Witch. At first the group is hopeful, especially when a pair of locals offer to act as guides through the dark and winding woods, but as the endless night wears on, the group is visited by a menacing presence. Slowly, they begin to realize the legend is all too real and more sinister than they could have imagined.
The 'Blair Witch' franchise is tough material to tackle. Love it or hate it, 'The Blair Witch Project' did two things that will forever lock its place into the history books, both of which were like lightning in a bottle and can never be recaptured: one, it was the first mainstream film to be shot in the now-exhausted found footage format. Two, going hand-in-hand with that, it was released with a brilliant marketing campaign that made moviegoers believe that it truly consisted of footage from three never-found filmmakers who became lost in the woods. Taking into account that the first sequel, 'Book of Shadows,' is entirely loathed, this new 'Blair Witch' had to find its own two legs to stand on. Aside from a final act that delivers in a way that original never could, sadly, the legs it chose to stand on were the same as the original.
Originally known as 'The Woods,' Lionsgate and the filmmakers kept its Blair Witch canonology a secret until a special screening and announcement at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con. I suppose that this was their way of adding an element of surprise to the film's release that was somewhat in the vein of the original's gimmicky approach. It wasn't needed and may have appeared more like overhyping than anything, but it was a fun surprise (although '10 Cloverfield Lane' had already done the same thing earlier in 2016).
Completely ignoring 'Book of Shadows,' 'Blair Witch' is a direct sequel to the original film. Set in 1994, 'The Blair Witch Project' followed three independent filmmakers on their shoot into a haunted forest in search of a rumored witch. Set in 2014, 'Blair Witch' follows the younger brother of one of the original missing characters who is still haunted by the disappearance of his sister. When recently-found footage of the witch's house shows up online, he believes that the footage is from his sister and that she's still alive. Offering their moral support, three friends agree to join him and head into the forest in search of closure.
To ensure that they're following the right trail, they contact the YouTuber who found the new footage and uploaded it to the internet, who offers to take them to the location where the tape was found. Upon meeting him, the conspiracy theorist only agrees to take them if he and his girlfriend are allowed to tag along for the entire trip. Their intent is to capture new freaky footage that they can post online to their blog.
The group of six head into the woods with eight cameras: four ear-mounted, two handheld, one surveillance, and one iPad-controlled drone. Up to their ears in technology, including a GPS tracker, several smart phones and a bunch of back-up batteries, their first day is rather uneventful. Aside from one character gashing her foot wide open while crossing a river, it's pretty much just like 'The Blair Witch Project.' Once the sun goes down, they make camp. And it's then that scary enters the picture – except it plays out just like the original. Loud sounds of clacking rocks, breaking trees and maniacal nightmarish laughter surround them. When they wake in the morning, the stick-and-twine figures from the first film are found hanging in the trees.
For me, this is a sign of bad horror. After 40 minutes, hardly anything has happened that didn't happen in the original. We've seen other franchises re-use formulas for sequels. See 'The Thing' (2011) and 'Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens' - but those at least did something new. Up to this point, 'Blair Witch' has been so true to the original that it hasn't done anything on its own.
The second act gets a little better. It actually builds out some of the mythology of the Blair Witch. We learn about time being distorted near the witch's presence. We learn about the elements that the witch can control. Things begin ramping up slowly, but once we get to the final act, it cuts loose.
Without spoiling anything, the climax fires on all cylinders. It delivers in ways that original didn't. It's extremely intense. The recycled scares from the first two acts (many of which were cheap jump scares and unexpected loud noises) are replaced with terrifying scenarios and uneasy imagery. By golly, the first half of 'Blair Witch' may be a boring mess, but it ultimately gets to where it was going. It stops rehashing the old and makes the Blair Witch world its own thing. If only we didn't have to pass through the first two thirds of the movie to get there. Had it been this creative and original the entire time, 'Blair Witch' could have been one of the greats.
All six actors, each of which is pretty much unknown, are capable of delivering. A few bits (which I presume were improvised) have weak acting, but they're definitely in the minority. The found footage style is executed much better than most. The camera doesn't just fly around incoherently – unless things are getting real. It's only during those moments that those affected by motion sickness may want to close their eyes for a bit.
If 'The Blair Witch Project' left you as unsatisfied as it left me, then you may want to trudge through the first half of 'Blair Witch' just so you can get to the second half, which ultimately brings us to the strongest aspect of any of the three 'Blair Witch' movies released to date.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Blair Witch' creeps its way onto Blu-ray with a fully-loaded combo pack release. Included with the Region A BD-50 disc is a DVD copy and a code for a Digital HD copy – all of which are housed in a two-disc blue Elite keepcase that slips vertically into a carboard slipcover. The disc itself kicks off with a Lionsgate reel and a commentary disclaimer, both of which are unskippable, prior to heading into a string of skippable trailers for 'The Blair Witch Project,' '31,' 'The Witch,' 'Knock Knock' and 'The Monster.'
'Blair Witch' arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode and a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. As I previously mentioned, as part of this found footage film's plot, there are five sources of footage: ear-mounted cameras, two different handheld cameras, one surveillance camera and one drone camera. Although the film wasn't shot purely on the same cameras that the characters carry, the quality of the footage varies as if it was. The styles aren't always consistent and even though the different sources each offer lessened video qualities (intentionally, of course), it this directorial decision is very fitting for the movie.
Being of a modern digital kind, the Canon DSLR carried by one of the main characters is the best-looking of the batch. Although it's the sharpest and clearest, the black levels in darkened sets and nighttime sequences are a bit murky. The character who carries it is meant to be a bit of a filmmaker, so it's also the most smooth and fluidly filmed of the cameras. At times, some of the ear-mounted footage is filmed with the Canon, which looks better than the odd cameras used for filming most of the head-cam footage. Those odd cameras aren't great, but they're not as bad as the what was used for the Sony DV camera. That footage is pixelated, lacks definition and carries blown-out contrasting and mild colorization. The surveillance footage is very murky and the drone footage is inconsistent. During daytime and dusk settings, the aerial imagery is sharp, but the nighttime footage is hideous.
Footage shown from 'The Blair Witch Project' has the flawed look of damaged 16 mm film, as it should. Regardless of the camera type, noise occasionally pops up. Artifacts also appear, but they result from the source quality rather than a bad transfer. I didn't notice any instances of aliasing, nor bands – which is impressive considering how the movie's nighttime sequences were shot with flashlight lighting.
'Blair Witch' is brought to life via an awesome Dolby Atmos mix. With a fantastic base 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track, it really plays with the sounds space. The first few scenes of the movie are set in plain old boring locations with nothing going on. As would be if recorded by an amateur, all sound is front and center. It initially puzzled me and left me questioning why they would have put it into the Atmos format if they weren't going to make use of the various channels – but then we get to our first transitional sequence. Just as the interstitial scene cuts in 'Cloverfield' contained jarring and juttering flashly loud clips of recorded-over old footage, so do those of 'Blair Witch.' When the first one hits with a surprise, all channels become alive with sound, alluding to the awesome sound mixing to come.
The first scene to entirely employ all channels is a pre-adventure clubbing sequence. The house techno music blairs from all around the room. It's very bassy. The same dynamic characteristics arise again several mintures later when the conspiracy theorist character blasts death metal in his car. These are the only two instances of genuine music being used in the movie. Functioning like score, rumbly and offputting tones and sounds are used to create the same emotional response as scoring would.
The first instance of great effects mixing comes when the foursome test-pilot the drone for the first time. With the camera set in the middle of the four rotors, the sounds of buzzing motors and rushing wind emit from all channels. Showing the dynamic quality of the mix, as blades quickly and briefly adjust speed to compensate for one another, the shifting volume rocks back and forth accordingly. It sounds great.
When the story finally gets truly exciting in the final act, the Atmos mix kicks it into high gear. As something chases the characters through the night forest, creepy unhuman sounds image around the space seamlessly. The sound somewhat resembles that of the Balrog in 'The Fellowship of the Ring' - only cranked up a notch. This intense audio sets the perfect stage for the creepiness that follows. Combined with lightning, heavy rainfall and a slew of even more disturbing sounds that lie ahead, it ends with perfect, highly effective sound mixing.
Although the Blu-ray case itself doesn't specifically call out the features as being exclusive to the format, a sticker on the slipcover explains that the included "over 3 hours of bonus content" are "only on Blu-ray" with an asterisk that explains that it's only "exclusive for a limited time. Also available on Digital. Not available on DVD." All special features are listed in the HD Bonus Content section below, although they will not be exclusive to Blu-ray forever.
'Blair Witch' comes nowhere close to stacking up to the many great horror movies that we've received over the last few years. And while it falls victim to recycling much of the format and many elements from the original 'Blair Witch Project,' this second sequel at least delivers greatness in its final act. It achieves heights that neither of its predecessors came close to delivering. Considering that it goes out with a larger-than-life bang, it's unfortunate that the first two-thirds couldn't break the mold and equally impress. Being a found-footage movie, the video quality isn't brilliant, but it's also fitting for the content and doesn't distract. The Dolby Atmos audio quality, on the other hand, is fantastic and leaves nothing to be desired. If you love the original 'Project' despite its many flaws, then you ought to enjoy how the story is expanded in this franchise. If they can break the mold, yet keep up the creativity, then subsequent sequels have great potential – but with 'Blair Witch' misfiring for over an hour, the franchise is not yet worth fully investing in.