Thursday, 15 September 2016

Blair Witch review

In a surprise twist, horror maverick Adam Wingard's latest venture was revealed not to be Blair Witch lookalike 'The Woods', but an actual Blair Witch movie, called 'Blair Witch' (ffs), hit the jump to read my review...

Interestingly enough, as I was walking to the cinema with my companion for Blair Witch, I was asked if I'd ever been properly scared whilst watching a horror movie. Not just made to jump a few times, or have been enraptured by a couple scenes, but actually to have sat through a film in abject terror. Aside from last year's 'The Nightmare' (read my review right here) which gave me my first horror-induced sleepless nights, no motion picture has really had that much of a lasting negative effect on my psyche. My experience post 'The Nightmare' can also be attributed to much more than the 'scariness' of the film (that wasn't what I would call terrifying); particularly it's subject matter and disturbing revelation. There's a reason that, at the time, I called it quite possibly the scariest film ever made. But the answer to my friends question was absolutely resolute: no. No, I have never watched a horror movie that was difficult to handle whilst on the screen. And I've seen them all, trust me.

My answer has changed.

The awesome promo material for a fake movie...
Blair Witch has a brilliant story behind it. Not quite as perfect as the original (a seminal and impressive work to my mind, but lacking the bite that so many attribute to it), but still a wonderful story. It follows that rising star Adam Wingard, and long term collaborator Simon Barrett are good friends with Eduardo Sanchez, the creator of the original. And one day they pitched the idea of another Blair Witch movie: quickly laughed off of course. But not that long after, Lionsgate contacted them with a whole story mapped out, and asked them if they'd be willing to make it. After a few adjustments and additions, the answer was yes, but one key problem remained: publicity. I know that, being a film fan, if a remake/reboot of the Blair Witch Project was announced 3 years ago (when production began), I would instantly dismiss it on the grounds that it would HAVE to be awful. of course it would. People like Wingard know this, and so the working title of 'The Woods' was adopted, and, at the request of Lionsgate, was kept up until the world premiere not so long ago. During this time, the crew were misled, the cast were given fake audition scripts and then asked to sign secrecy documents, and even later on in the development, a major producer announced that the film seemed like a massive rip-off of the Blair Witch: he                                                                                 hadn't even been informed of the cover-up.

Yet, to discerning horror fans, Wingard carries the giddy excitement that the Ti West of yonder once conjured, and the Comic-con preview was naturally packed out, with 'The Woods' promotional materials and tees enveloping the screening. Pretty soon, the Blair Witch influence could be clearly felt, and then very quickly it's existence as part of that canon was nigh-on confirmed. Half-way through, a switcheroo occurred, and when the house lights came back on all the posters had been magically replaced with 'Blair Witch' ones. A nice marketing move that I suppose is a bit of a meta-reference in itself to the real source of the original's scares: the intoxicatingly 'real' promo angle that the creators took, to the extent that many audience members believed they were watching a true snuff film.

Some new mythology being explored by, erm, 'Darknet666'.....
because conspiracy theory....
I have admired Wingard for his stellar chiller/thriller hybrids 'The Guest' and 'You're Next'; fantastically entertaining horror films that blended in a deal of fun camp and 80s culture. His contribution to 'V/H/S 2', a found footage sci-fi whatsit, is also impressive as a genuinely quite scary exercise - often being recognized as the best short in the film, or even in the entire series. What a surprise then, and a genuine puzzle, that he should take on a big IP, from Lionsgate nonetheless, and make a found footage shocker set in the woods. It comes out this Thursday 16th, and I decided to check it out.

The influence of BWP is instantly recognisable, with the exact same font and formatting used for the hokey 'it's all true' statement at the head of the film. And from there on in, a tricky tightrope is masterfully walked between homage, reference, and originality. Instantly, the tone presents itself as almost joyous. A self-aware comedy, almost: the way in which the characters act about spending time in the woods amounts to Scream levels of meta. Finally, a group of people who don't seem to relish the idea of going out into seemingly haunted desolate spots. And the comedy continues for the better part of 45 minutes I'd say... fading out in part due to some spooky shenanigans then coming back in at the halfway mark for the films last final (and very funny) jokes. Very similar, stylistically, to the dark comedic undertones of You're Next and the Guest; not a bad thing at all.

Oh fuck... no... don't go in the house....
He's going in the house, isn't he?
This would be a good time to mention the story, no? Blair Witch follows James, the brother of Heather - the original BWP main protagonist - after he finds some mysterious online footage alluding to her continued existence. Followed by his film school friend (complete with HD cams and even a drone!), and assorted mates, he heads into the woods with the finders of the video tape to see if Heather is alive. From here on in, all the usual shit occurs (If you've seen BWP) and of course, they get lost. Followed by some spooky shenanigans.

I mentioned earlier that this film terrified me. Let me explain why. In most horror films, the original BWP included, night time and day time sequences are alternated. In the day time, audiences feel safe, and at night they are trained to expect jumps and horror. It's just how life works. What disappointed me about the first venture into Burkittsville woods was that 50% of the action felt completely safe - and adding the daylight sequences at the beginning that changed to around 70-80%. There was no sustained terror. And, in fact, that's what you find with most horror movies. This incarnation of BW plays a funny mind game that the original wasn't able to due to budget concerns. It uses drone shots to disorientate and show that the landscape has somehow shifted and the roads have disappeared. But best of all, at the halfway mark or perhaps just a bit later, it even warps time to create a situation in which it is perpetual night. Yep, that's right, creepy flashlights and silence in the woods occupy the whole second half of the movie. You know the tension that occurs 4-5seconds before a jumpscare? That level of insane stress is stretched over a 45 minute period.

Despite it's devotion to the original, Wingard and Barrett do have some
fun in creating new ideas.
What's worse is that *1998 SPOILER* in the original, one could almost be sure that there were no scares coming up, seeing as literally nothing happened. But Wingard shows us pretty early on in the comedic and primary horror scenes that he's willing to go BOO! To the level where one character even remarks 'can people please stop doing this?' after the 10th person popping into the frame at an opportune moment cheap scare. So always, without a question, the audience are expecting a scare. Wingard isn't stupid enough to under or over deliver on that front - so it's almost a Russian roulette of whether something will pop out in your face at any second; creating a balls to the wall terrifying atmosphere in the theater. For instance, in one particularly high stakes scene, two of the characters bump into each other, and then Wingard frames them in a series of shots with plenty of background visible - a cliche jumpscare framing. And during this, he takes the non-diegetic music down to 0. Again, this is literally the most cliched moment for a scare. This scenario holds for what felt like hours, but must have been around 2 minutes, before ending without so much as a bang. During that space of time, everyone in the theater cowered under their T-shirts and jumpers, felt their heart rate go up to 200bpm, and the terror level went through the roof. But then, we'd been masterfully played. And seeing as there hadn't been any discharge of tension, the next scene also became open to that sort of visceral reaction, and the next, and the next and so on.

Often, before the finale (which, yes, does involve a spooky fucking house), the scares come in the form of horrific sounds that either startle, or build in intensity in the surround sound - genuinely freaking out the audience who cannot escape them. But the final 5-10 minutes are by FAR the worst. From the moment where James steps through an open window and into a dilapidated house in the middle of a thunderstorm, we are thrust into an unimaginable nightmare. Jumpscare after jumpscare, terrifying image after terrifying image, an incredibly slow walk down into a basement (which is even worse than it sounds; people were seriously saying 'no no no no no no no no' in the screening), a claustrophobic crawl through a tunnel with the camera constantly turning sharp corners to reveal what's round them, and what could possibly be the scariest frame of the decade: a glimpse of what I believe was supposed to be the Blair Witch. A terrifying, abstract, and bizarre design that only flashes up for a millisecond or two, but really heightens the sense of all encompassing fear that I was feeling by this point. In fact, the diversity of the scares serves to showcase Wingard's talent for horror movie making (as if that needed to be verified) even more. Particularly in aforementioned house scene, and the scenes in the camp. Aside from those, the sets mainly consist of flashlights shining into trees (yes, I know, that's bad enough); a surprisingly minimalist picture.

A beautifully lit, vertigo-inducing scene from just before
the film goes balls-to-the-wall scary.
It's not a film that's going to give you nightmares (unless you're prone to that sort of thing), keep you awake at night, or alter your life; but that doesn't mean it wont scare you. For a whole 45 minutes you will be subjected to a constant feeling of vulnerability; a barrage of distressing images; and ear-splittingly horrific sound. It absolutely will scare the shit out of you. An audible sigh of relief will be heard when the credits appear onscreen. An audible sigh of relief because at last the ordeal                                                                                          is over: an ordeal that felt like hours.

The images presented onscreen look fantastic to boot, thanks to a nifty re-shuffle of the shoddy production values of found footage. Instead, we have crisp clear 1080p/4k recordings combined with some lovely drone shots, the usual juddery hand cam, and a couple shots from an old tape-video device that presumably act as a reference (more on that in a sec). The greens are lush and attractive, the blacks dark and ominous, and the browns (and reds at certain points) are earthy and realistic. All in all, it felt autumnal and high quality. At night, when torches illuminate small sections of the trees, the images take on a far more realistic and terrifying feel. When combined with some expert surround sound, the whole package looks and sounds like a professional doing a professional piece of work. A departure from the candy-colours and retro sounds of the duo's two previous offerings, but an effective and interesting transition from the masters of cool and subversive, to the masters of terror. One wonders what they will bring to the table next....

A more developed realisation of those creepy-ass stick
figure things from BWP.
As briefly mentioned, however, parts of the essential Wingard experience remain intact. Numero uno: a shit ton of references. This being a Blair Witch sequel and all, some theming has to be intact, but the sheer number of elements from the original that are referenced (and often improved on here) is phenomenal. Aside from the opening declarations and camcorder standards, he greatly improves on that old, spooky house; improves those creepy stick figures (giving them a purpose), and in general gets across the idea that time and space are warped by the woods far better than the original did. These references are fun to spot, but also make watching the original a non-essential: as the bare bones mythology in the 1999 iteration is deepened much by this vision.

The acting is of a similarly high standard. All unknown players, really, which I suppose can be counted as a reference. But the right kind of reference, given that it adds an extra dose of realism to the finished product. Unknown actors will never help sell a film, but when the brand and the people behind it can sell it excellently, then they are a brilliant asset to bringing people into the world of a film. Seeing Matt Damon on the screen creates some kind of invisible sheen that diminishes the horror. With Blair Witch, on the other hand, I felt that the characters were real people. Some were a little stereotyped, sure, but horror trades on these characteristics. And the internet conspiracy people - 'darknet666' is funnily accurate to the 4chan demographic.

Perhaps a bit much for claustrophobics.... This is a painfully long and
painfully scary scene.
Okay, so so far so good....  but where are the negatives? Well, there are a few... Firstly, there's a little too much derivation from the original: a whole lot of idea development, but nothing exactly new is brought to the table. It's hardly a major sin, but it still stands. Secondly, a couple points off for this being a completely unnecessary exercise. After seeing Blair Witch, i can safely say that Wingard and Barrett could make a terrifying film set in the woods. Maybe innovate a little and use first person rather than found footage. Sticking the BWP franchise moniker on it and basing it solely on that mythology feels a little bit of a let down, despite the fantastic results. And thirdly, as expertly as the duo orchestrate their jumpscares, and as knowingly as they do so (see earlier comments regarding self-awareness), the fact is that this kind of scare is a little cheap. I know that the creators weren't looking for high-brow on this one, and I admire the way in which they have gunned straight for a pure entertainment goal, but the point still stands.

Interestingly, Wingard himself stated that he wanted Blair Witch to feel like a 'haunted hayride through the woods', and I feel that this is what we have here: a carnival attraction. Imagine one of those 'horror mazes' or walkthrough haunted houses, but with a real sense of fear and danger. There's fun to be had, but it might not fit your definition of the word.... If you want to see something that wont scar you for life, but will absolutely terrify you and keep you in a state of abject horror for a sustained period of time, then this is your kind of fucked-up fairground.

Blair Witch gets 4 stars!

No comments:

Post a Comment