In the midst of the most overstuffed pop culture event of the year, with most of Hollywood keeping their wares away from Hall H, one studio pulled off a coup at Comic-Con with two simple words: Blair Witch.
Friday at Comic-Con, Lionsgate didn’t just announce to the world that they had a third Blair Witch film in the works—they screened the entire finished movie for a theater full of unsuspecting fans who thought they were about to see the new horror flick The Woods. Surprise!
The Woods, filmed entirely in secret last summer, is the first sequel to horror megahit The Blair Witch Project since 2000’s much-maligned Razzie-winner Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. Directed by Adam Wingard from a script by his You’re Next and The Guest collaborator Simon Barrett, Blair Witch (its official title) picks up after the events of both previous films right where the franchise began: in the woods outside of Burkittsville, Maryland, where three wannabe filmmakers disappeared almost two decades ago.
It’s not a reboot or a prequel or an alternate timeline re-quel, but an old-fashioned straight-up sequel that continues the frights first established in Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s 1999 film while expanding the Blair Witch-verse in wildly inventive and unexpected ways.
Other things have changed in the interim between that first DV cam-toting generation of witch hunters and their YouTube-reared successors. The new Blair Witch leads, four vaguely millennial young adults, are a little too camera-pretty to pretend that this, like the first Blair Witch, could possibly be real. (Even Book of Shadows, rushed into release just a year after the first movie, danced a metafictional line, its characters named for the actors who played them.)
But this time nobody’s pretending at faux-verité. That’s a good thing, because it opens the door for Wingard and Barrett to tweak and toy with the boundaries of the Blair Witch sandbox to throw every horror tool in their arsenal at the screen while keeping it stripped down to its basic elements: unsuspecting characters, a few cameras, the creepy twig dolls that have haunted a generation raised on the first Blair Witch, and the vast, unforgiving woods.
It all starts optimistically enough: Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Peter (Brandon Scott), Ashley (Corbin Reid), and James (James Allen McClure) head out for a camping adventure in the Black Hills Forest, filming the weekend for Lisa’s documentary class. They’re all there to support James, who’s spent his entire life searching for the older sister who disappeared with her camera crew while chasing the legend of the Blair Witch into these very woods.
Tensions mount from the start as Barrett’s script peppers vital character details and dynamics in with deceptively economical precision. The group’s dynamic becomes more complicated by the addition of a local couple who agree to lead the gang into the forest on the trail of his long-lost sister.
Wingard never forgets which pieces are in play in his increasingly disorienting nightmare and leans into the tried and true signposts of found footage: loud noises, jump-scares, and a variety of recording sources that underscore the evil inevitability of impending doom. Despite walking into the woods equipped with every high-tech 21st century gadget you can imagine—walkies, cell phones, webcams, earpiece cams, and a drone—these characters have no idea how ill-prepared they are to survive these woods and their own millennial hubris.
No matter what happens they all keep filming because no one suspects they won’t make it out alive until it’s too late. Even then, Blair Witch takes surprising turns. It’s not just the wide-open spaces that’ll get you. From deep within the endless forest, Blair Witch delivers the kind of memorably claustrophobic new scares that bring the genre back to its grab-the-armchairs roller coaster roots.
The idea that a secret sequel could bring a long-stale franchise like this back to life is, frankly, the most surprising thing to happen to horror in ages. It’s been 17 years since The Blair Witch Project came out of nowhere to put found footage horror on the map and made audiences and critics alike wonder if the legends of witchy terrors outside of Burkittsville, Maryland, were true.
Blair Witch diehards should rejoice, not the least because this new offering pays meticulous homage to the original—particularly through painstakingly recreated production design. Its metaphysical additions to the mythology give the franchise its greatest gift: a future. Just when found footage and the Blair Witch saga seemed like relics from horror cinema’s past, it seems there might actually be new reason to return to the woods.