Back before the words “viral” and “found footage” had any theatrical connotations, 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” became one of the most profitable and influential indie films of all time.
Now armed with a budget nearly 100 times that of the original, “Blair Witch” emerges as a strong contender for not only the worst film of the year but the worst cinematic experience. Nausea-provoking camerawork, cacophonous sound design and incoherent editing assault the senses nonstop. The only thing that could make watching this movie more unpleasant is if ushers tasered viewers at random intervals.
Besides a lack of subtlety, the most obvious difference between the original and its second(ish) sequel concerns technology. This applies to both the filmmakers and their characters, a group of documentarians with a personal mission.
Students James (James Allen McCune), Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) prepare an expedition into the Black Hills Forest of Maryland. James’ older sister, Heather (from the first picture), disappeared 20 years earlier when exploring the legend of a witch who cursed the locale. Now he’ll search those woods for the still-undiscovered house that was seen on the recovered tapes Heather made of her ill-fated outing.
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He needs to find “closure and solace” from the quest but also secretly hopes to find his sister alive. (Never mind that given the siblings’ respective ages, he would have no recollection of her, right?)
Instead of a compass, they’ll use GPS trackers; instead of video cassette cameras they’ll guide hovering drone cameras. Cellphones. Wireless earbuds. GoPros. They’ll take every modern precaution to not disappear like the previous party, while recording everything they see.
Teaming with two local metalheads (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) who first discovered one of Heather’s tapes, the six almost immediately find themselves lost. Then their tech goes haywire. Then freaky humanoid stick figures appear, hanging in trees around their campsite.
Once everyone gets separated and “hunted” by an unseen menace, one question will keep nagging viewers: You hiked into the woods to confront a witch and you didn’t pack weapons? Even the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion bring a pipe wrench, pesticide sprayer and revolver when they trek through the Haunted Forest to rescue Dorothy.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett made 2013’s passable horror thriller “You’re Next,” which also suffered from an underdeveloped screenplay. Whereas that flick at least looked stylish, the filmmakers here are stuck with footage that supposedly comes exclusively from equipment toted by their characters.
This material might prove palatable on an iPhone. In a theater with a wide screen and surround sound, it’s seizure-inducing. Shaky camerawork, whip pans and what Mike Myers referred to in his Wayne’s World sketches as “extreme close-ups” don’t just mimic amateurism; they are amateurish.
Even though “The Blair Witch Project” is best remembered for its “this is real” conceit and novel internet marketing campaign, the film also demonstrated a mastery of restraint. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (who serve as executive producers on the new one) never showed what was tormenting the campers. They used distant voices of children laughing to build tension. The horrors were always implied, not revealed. Less was more.
Not the case with “Blair Witch,” which abandons this approach during its noisy, chaotic, inexplicable finale. It becomes a bad spin on “The Evil Dead” rather than a fresh updating of its predecessor. Yet another display of digital monsters and limited imagination.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 1:29.