Published Sep 14, 2016Is Adam Wingard the best genre filmmaker working today? Blair Witch makes a compelling argument in his favour, after back-to-back audience hits You're Next and The Guest.
Initially billed as The Woods earlier this year, the film dropped like a stealth bomb on audiences this summer at Comic-Con when Wingard revealed the actual title. Any fears viewers may have had about Wingard losing his playful filmmaking voice to the sequel machine can rest easy knowing that Blair Witch is a Wingard film through and through, though it updates his visual palette to suit the found-footage form. Blair Witch is the best found-footage horror film since the first Paranormal Activity, revitalizing a tired gimmick with seemingly endless new ideas.
Taking cues from Brian De Palma, Wingard is equal parts jokester and sadist here, packing his frames with gags within gags that have a bitter aftertaste. Updating the franchise for a post-internet generation, Blair Witch knows viewers are accustomed to a very different world than when the first film bowed in 1999. We're much more distrustful, far more sceptical of the photographic image and its claims to truth, so Wingard doubles down on our anxieties, refracting and shattering images that claim to be truthful into a million pieces. Assembling all kinds of formats from DSLR cameras to YouTube videos to aerial drone and body cams into a kind of gleeful collage, the film is equal parts punk anarchy and classic Hitchcockian pure cinema.
Ditching his regular band of repertory players (bye, AJ Bowen), Wingard picks up 17 years after the first Blair Witch left off. (Don't worry if you haven't seen the not-as-bad-as-everyone-claims sequel Book of Shadows, as Wingard is only interested in subtly diving into the mythology set up in the first instalment.) James Donahue, brother to Heather from the first film, becomes obsessed with the legend of the Blair Witch and is determined to find out what happened the night the first film crew disappeared. He teams up with some friends and a pair of viral video freaks to set off into the woods, but this time, they're sure they'll be prepared. Armed with a high-end camera (blurring the line between amateur documentary and cinema, a sly gag on modern indie moviemaking), body cameras, a low-grade tape camera, a drone and a GPS, the crew sets off to find the legendary cabin in the woods, but before long, things start going wrong.
Revealing much more would be a disservice to the subtle pleasures found here, but it's safe to say that Wingard has made one of the scariest films in recent memory. It's become a popular critique in horror cinema to write off jump scares as cheap exercises, but there's still value in a masterfully constructed moment that culminates in a surprise. Wingard understands the role of surprise, with nods to Sam Raimi's "spook-a-blast" mode of filmmaking, producing a rollercoaster ride of terror. Blair Witch swaps out the nauseating dread of the first film, but replaces it with something exciting and fresh.
This new entry in the series proves Wingard can pull off just about anything after mastering the home invasion genre in You're Next and the action satire of The Guest. He's made himself known as a chameleon, abandoning one form for a new one, while still retaining his voice. Bring on whatever's next.