Legend has it that the early short film “Arrival of a Train” — which showed a train pulling into the station at La Ciotat — so jolted 1896 audiences who had never seen a movie before that they actually fled the theater to avoid being run over. The closest modern audiences have probably come to that level of interactivity was in 1999, when “The Blair Witch Project” offered, for many filmgoers, their first experience with found-footage horror, and the film’s resemblance to first-person documentary unsettled viewers who felt they were watching real, terrifying events unfold before their eyes.
No doubt 1913 audiences would have suppressed a yawn at “Arrival of Yet Another Train,” and similarly, 2016 viewers can’t be expected to be terrified by “Blair Witch,” a sequel/remake that never strays far enough from the original to create a unique brand of terror. Sure, the camera equipment is more sophisticated now (these hikers bring a drone with them), but we’re left with another group of young people running, crying and screaming their way through the woods.
On paper, this should be a slam-dunk: “Blair Witch” is the product of writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, whose previous collaborations “You’re Next” and “The Guest” rank among the 21st century’s most acclaimed indie horror projects. But not even they have figured out a way to make this movie stand on its own. The filmmaking duo guides us on a slightly different path, but it’s clear early on that the destination will be all too familiar.
This time around, college student James (James Allen McCune, “Shameless”) wants to head into the Burkittsville woods in the hopes that his sister Heather (played by Heather Donahue in the original) might still be alive; his interest is renewed after seeing a clip online posted by “dark web” denizen Lane (Wes Robinson). James heads to the forest, accompanied by lifelong pal Peter (Brandon Scott, “Grey’s Anatomy”), Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) and documentarian Lisa (Callie Hernandez, “La La Land”).
They’re joined by Lane and his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry, “American Pastoral”), even though Peter and Ashley are less than delighted to have the company of someone who hangs a giant Confederate flag in his living room. The real hero of “Blair Witch” is editor Louis Cioffi, who has to weave together footage from four earpiece cameras, two handhelds and that drone, making all of it coherent and, ostensibly, frightening.
But familiarity is the enemy of fright, and as these meat puppets venture further and further into the haunted woods, they hit all the same beats as their 1999 predecessors, from getting lost (GPS is no match for the Blair Witch) to finding those creepy stick-figure men hanging in the trees. Barrett takes a stab at a few new ideas — Is one of the group faking the witch’s mayhem? Might Heather actually still be alive after all this time? — but the opening crawl (letting us know that what we’re seeing comes from tapes and memory cards found on May 5, 2014) pretty much announces that we’re doing to do the hokey pokey one more time.
(If there are any references to the ill-fated “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” this time around, they slipped right past me.)
“Blair Witch” does manage to generate occasional moments of tension, particularly when it strays from the first film’s narrative and peeks into some new dark corners. (One hiker’s injury allows for some chillingly bloody moments.) The cast is game, if not called upon to do much, and cinematographer Robby Baumgartner (“The Guest”) lights the film in a way that’s creepy and atmospheric, even if he has to hand the bulk of the camerawork over to a bunch of actors.
The ideal audience for “Blair Witch” is probably anyone who never saw “The Blair Witch Project,” but that’s not the best target demographic for a found-footage horror movie. This new batch of unhappy campers might be more comfortable with taking selfies than their predecessors, but their wilderness survival skills certainly aren’t any better.