Students on a camping trip discover something sinister is lurking beyond the trees.
Filmed in secret under the title 'The Woods', director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (the team behind You’re Next and The Guest) haven’t messed with success with this follow-up to the 1999 found footage classic, The Blair Witch Project. They stick to the same basic structure and scares as the original while ramping up the intensity, and while it may not have quite the same authentic feel as the first film – no-one’s going to be leaving this thinking what they saw may have actually happened – getting lost in the woods still clearly retains a lot of primal fear.
When a brief clip surfaces online purporting to show the inside of the Blair Witch House, James (James Allen McCune) is convinced a blurry figure on-screen is actually a glimpse of his sister (Heather from the first film). Together with his almost-girlfriend, film-maker Lisa (Callie Hernandez) his best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) they head out to meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) who found the footage. Turns out he and his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry) will only show them the site in person, and together all six head into the Black Hills Forest. As things rapidly start to go wrong, tensions soon build between the two groups. Ashley cuts her foot, Lane starts freaking out, time starts playing tricks on them and when the sun goes down it’s soon clear that being out in the woods after dark is a very bad idea indeed.
The original was so committed to realism the cast often didn’t know what was about to happen to them to ensure their terrified reactions were authentic. It was a film where the whole “is it real or not” question was so central that the much-maligned 2000 sequel Book of Shadows was as much about the hype around the reality of original film as anything else. Blair Witch does not go down that path. While there’s some attempt to justify the wider range of camera angles – giving everyone headset cameras means they can edit back and forth during conversations, while a drone used for high angle shots actually comes to play a major part in the story – this still feels like much more of a generic “found footage” film than a real attempt to create a plausible mockumentary.
That approach extends to the characters, who have a few snarky moments but never reach the sustained low-key griping that made the original feel so real. But with twice the people in the woods there’s twice as many opportunities to kill people off, and this delivers a solid range of deaths from the jarringly brutal to the creepily vague.
Wingard and Barrett expand a little on the original film’s mythos, with a slightly more detailed origin for the Blair Witch and a few more rules about where and how you fall into her clutches. Advances in CGI mean there’s slightly more to show as well, though this mostly sticks to the original’s focus on keeping what we actually see to a minimum. Overall, this builds on the original in a way that grows the franchise without moving too far from its roots: 'Blair Witch 3: Witch in the City' this ain’t.
This might lack the raw lengthy unease of the original, but for the most part it sticks to what was creepy about the original – noises in the dark, running from something you can’t quite see, being gradually hemmed into a situation where your options go from slim to none - and updates it well. If this signals the rebirth of the franchise, here’s hoping they do something more with the sequels. As it stands, this makes for a (Coffin) rock-solid starting point.