According to legend, the witch who haunts Maryland’s Black Hills Forest is so scary that anyone who so much as looks at her immediately drops dead from fright. In 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project,” three film students ventured into the dark woods, armed with Super 8 video cameras, to find out if she really existed.
None of them survived — their bodies were never found — but the grainy, shaky video they left behind raked in $250 million and popularized the found-footage horror genre. In the new sequel “Blair Witch,” which wisely pretends 2000’s “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” never happened, that video has become a phenomenon on YouTube, particularly the end of the movie, which managed to be utterly terrifying even though it was just a shot of a guy staring at a wall in the corner of a gloomy basement.
So another group of aspiring filmmakers (including the younger brother of one of the characters from the original) decide to find out what really went down in those freaky woods. Specifically, they want to find the dilapidated house in which the first film came to an abrupt stop. This crew goes in better prepared, with high-resolution cameras mounted on earpieces, GPS tracking devices and even a drone they use to get an aerial view of their surroundings.
The only thing they forget to bring is a script. “Blair Witch,” the latest collaboration between writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard (they previously made “You’re Next,” “The Guest” and “A Horrible Way to Die”), is essentially a remake of “The Blair Witch Project” with better production values and a few added jolts of shock-horror. This time, the scary stuff isn’t limited to strange sounds, piles of rocks and creepy stick figures made out of twigs, although all of those things figure prominently in the movie.
Falling into the trap that sinks most horror sequels, “Blair Witch” amps the jolts and shocks with more visceral frights (there’s some business involving an infected foot wound that is truly unnerving and also super gross) to diminishing results. Although the movie stops short of explaining away everything about its eponymous monster, we still learn enough to lessen the impact. Once we find out exactly why that dude was standing there staring at the wall, the image loses its creepiness. Some questions are best left unanswered.
At least a third of “Blair Witch” consists of people running through the woods with flashlights, shouting out each other’s names. A little of this goes a long way. Much like the original film, “Blair Witch” doesn’t have enough story to support a full-length movie, so Wingard resorts to atmospheric padding. But we’ve seen so many variations on this sort of thing since “The Blair Witch Project” that the movie becomes tedious. Instead of dreading bad things happening to the protagonists, you start looking forward to the next calamity. The last 10 minutes of the film are fairly effective — even if you’re not claustrophobic, you might feel your chest tightening a bit — but by that point you’ve long been ready for the thing to be over. “The Blair Witch Project” was revolutionary; “Blair Witch” is just another sequel.