Examining Blair Witch’s Biggest Sin

The legacy of The Blair Witch Project has been great for others replicating its methods for success. For more Blair Witch stories though? Very mixed results.

As a huge fan of the original film, I was eager to watch Joe Berlinger’s (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 back in 2000, and that, unfortunately, was one of the most disappointing moviegoing experiences I’ve had.

Nowadays I believe there’s something worthwhile in the commentary on fandom, even if it is presented like an MTV show. The idea of a sequel that treats the original as a possible fiction is smart, and doing so in the same way the public did and questions its validity by investigating the actual town. It was a tonal nightmare, but not the disaster I once believed it was.

Then there were the fascinating if flawed Blair Witch games that began as sequels to the PC horror title Nocturne. Each of the three titles dealt with a different part of the history of the Blair Witch (Rustin Parr, Elly Kedward, Coffin Rock) and expanded on the lore quite impressively. They’re better than Book of Shadows or Bloober Team’s Blair Witch game from 2019.

So, there was always room for a straight-up continuation of the original story, and we would get that in 2016 when Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) directed Blair Witch. It came as a bit of a surprise having been filmed under the name The Woods and shot in Vancouver instead of the original’s Patapsco State Park.

A DV Tape is unearthed in Burkittsville’s Black Hills Forest and the raw footage is uploaded onto the internet where a man called James finds it and believes it contains footage of his sister, who went missing in the woods in 1994. That sister turns out to be Heather Donahue from the first film. James is convinced Heather is somehow still alive and rounds up a group of friends to search for her.

Return to Burkittsville

Credit: Lionsgate

James’ friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) films a documentary on the legend as they search for Heather, hence the return to found footage. Once in Maryland, the friends are joined by locals claiming to have found the tape. After deliberation, the local duo joined the group on their journey into the Black Hills Forest.

We know what happened the last two times anyone walked into these woods, but with more modern technology such as smartphones and drone cameras, surely there won’t be the same issues, right? Well, it would be a pretty dull film if technology threw a spanner in the works, wouldn’t it? The Blair Witch’s mysterious time-dilating magic has no time for you kids and your smartphones and your social media.

What initially follows is a very obvious and deliberate repetition of the kind of things the Blair Witch did in previous films. Getting people turned around, messing with their heads, and leaving those signature backwoods Martha Stewart decorations out for her guests. But when it comes to a close and we get to a very controversial choice accompanying a genuinely intriguing expansion of the time manipulation. The group gets pulled apart in terms of when they exist and some characters return having been apparently missing for days or more instead of hours. It’s a nice addition to what had been hinted at before, and makes the mind games more elaborate.

But then comes the part that draws the most ire. The showing of what appears to be the witch. The sudden arrival of an impossibly tall and gangly humanoid thing in the location of the original film’s ending does make it seem like the idea is to reveal the Blair Witch, which did not go down well. Later screenwriter Simon Barrett would claim the long-limbed creature was actually one of the Blair Witch’s victims, even though the stuntwoman playing her is credited as the titular witch. Whatever the creature is, it’s the stickman who broke the movie’s back as it was the most egregious example of how the ambiguity that made the original story so effective was lost.

It makes sense to some degree. We’d moved into a different era of internet mythology born from what The Blair Witch Project birthed. So the likes of Slender Man had built on the idea’s bones whilst showing what the monster actually is. A modern audience might better appreciate seeing something instead of an overt suggestion. The look of the creature in the house, and another notable entity later, feels off with the largely grounded way Wingard films the movie and doesn’t look convincing enough to carry the idea that this is found footage of some real event.

So Blair Witch ends up somewhere between The Blair Witch Project and Book of Shadows. It buys into the mythos of the original to begin with, but veers into the territory of entertainment a bit too readily. There’s no doubt Wingard and Barrett made Blair Witch with a love of that original film. So much of its runtime is a clear showcase of that. Ending it was always going to be a difficult task because you either repeat the process entirely or try to push past that. Wingard tries to balance that, but it doesn’t quite stay steady.