The New Paranormal
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Adam Wingard, U.S., Lionsgate
He wants to see for himself. Almost twenty years after his older sister, Heather, went missing in the woods in Burkittsville, Maryland, James is driven to find out what happened to her and sets out to track her down, a group of filmmaking friends in tow and saddled with an array of advanced filmmaking equipment and GPS technology to help record and track their progress. Of course, we know that Heather was likely spirited away by the wicked Blair Witch of local lore because we saw it happen, thanks to some harrowing footage unearthed in the woods and constructed into a surprisingly linear narrative by some enterprising, unidentified editor. There’s really not much ambiguity to Heather’s fate, even though The Blair Witch Project thrived on ambiguity, thrilling and frustrating viewers in equal measure back in the summer of 1999, pushing the limits of what mainstream audiences, used to more polished spectacle, would accept in a multiplex. For those of us willing to give ourselves over, the film resonated in ways that were difficult to shake, functioning on a primal level of fear not far removed from what Hawthorne and Irving exploited and achieved in their nineteenth-century tales of superstition, while also championing the malleability of the medium.
James (James McClune) represents one of those skeptical viewers for whom the ending of the original simply wasn’t enough. As the new film opens he’s watching frantic YouTube footage of the house where the first film concluded, and claims to see a fleeting trace of Heather. He simply doesn't believe that she's dead. The “That’s it!?” response from many viewers at the audaciously open ending is built into his narrative, and becomes the clever incitement to action in Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch. James’s insistence on finding out the truth for himself—for, crucially, seeing with his own eyes, rather than the mediated, oblique images that the rest of the world has also seen—is initially reminiscent of the hero’s horrifying journey in George Sluizer’s 1988 The Vanishing, in which the boyfriend of a kidnapping victim purposefully endures the same terrible fate of his beloved just to know. We realize that it’s mania, because the horror form dictates that characters will inevitably do something self-destructive to get to a place of complete terror and regret. Ultimately, the young cast of characters here—James’s friends Peter, Ashley, and Lisa, the latter filming the trip for her documentary class at school—will end up running and screaming and crying, their emotions vivid and relatable, though they’re increasingly betrayed and ultimately capsized by Wingard’s insistence on maintaining another rigorously preposterous found-footage framework.
Whether one finds Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s first film a hoax or scary to the point of eye-watering (as I did upon first seeing it), the integrity of its simplicity is undeniable. The structure was cruelly sound: day will inevitably become night, and our three foolhardy backpackers, lost in the endless woods, will find themselves again cold, haunted, and hunted by some unseen force. A rustling outside of their tents, incongruous sounds of laughing children, inexplicable piles of twigs and rocks, and a man standing stock-still in the corner of an abandoned house’s basement—that’s all we get in terms of potentially supernatural behavior, but the persuasive emotions of the actors, battling the unforgiving natural elements as much as the unknown, push it over the edge into full-throttle emotional territory. More importantly, the crudeness of the image and the burden of the filmmaking apparatus itself—lugging that heavy end-of-the-millennium 16mm equipment around on their burdened backs—lent it a strange and singular sort of fear that could never be replicated by a bigger budget film trying to mimic its effect-less effects. That final shot, for example, offers an astonishingly scary disjunction of sound and image: we see through Heather’s camera as she makes her way down the stairs from the top floor, but, crucially, her screams are being recorded separately on the DAT, which is all the way in the basement with her partner Mike. The distance between her point of view and her voice becomes shorter and shorter as she descends, until finally she and we are in full view of the film’s hair-raising last glimpse.
Such an effect would be extremely unlikely with today’s synced sound-and-image recording methods, and there’s certainly nothing in Wingard’s film that comes close to such subliminally effective terror. Instead, he expectedly goes for full-throttle, high-decibel horror, amping up the Blair Witch model for the ADHD generation, providing an endless array of false scares and loud crashes. The original’s wait-for-it day, night, day, night rhythm is even upended thanks to a potentially disorienting narrative device in which the group seems to continually sleep through every day, effectively canceling out the possibility of daylight; rather than exploiting this for maximum emotional impact, however, it just serves to push the film along quickly, ensuring the characters have no down time, and that we viewers have no moment to catch our breath.
The documentary-aping found-footage genre has become such a mainstay of 21st-century horror filmmaking that one forgets that even in 1999 viewers were questioning the believability of the format—it requires a suspension of disbelief wholly independent of the kind one normally attributes to dramatic fantasy fiction, adhering to a certain version of constructed reality, and asking one to believe that the characters would keep filming what they were seeing despite the fact that they are spiraling toward certain death. The elegance of 2014’s Unfriended—complexly woven on a computer screen of Skype chat, IM, and Facebook windows in an ostensible single take—showed a potential way forward for the form; Wingard’s film is a step back (though not as detrimental to the cause as Ti West’s miserable The Sacrament). There’s a superfluity of recording devices, including mounted body and surveillance cams; old-school mini DV; and even a drone, none of which pay off in any clever or satisfying way; rather the ability to cut all of the variously captured footage together into a straight-forward, almost classical shot-reverse-shot narrative (despite the all the shaky, running, screaming shots of branches and leaves) only underlines the filmmakers’ lack of imagination. Blair Witch by necessity requires a series of strict limitations; otherwise it’s only a movie.