"Do you see her?"
That's the opening line of Adam Wingard's Blair Witch, and it's also likely the first question on the minds of a lot of viewers planning to see this 17-years-later sequel to The Blair Witch Project (1999), which famously—and brilliantly—did not show its eponymous villainess. While it's hardly a news flash to write now that The Blair Witch Project was not the first, and probably not even the 50th, horror movie to work within the "found footage" conceit, it was and remains a landmark in the less-is-more department.
If one common denominator between the best horror films is that what you don't see is often scarier than what you do, another is that it's a bad idea for contemporary city people to go poking around in the Old, Weird America—that's where Norman Bates or Leatherface or the Blair Witch is waiting to punish you for your curiosity. The Blair Witch Project framed the fateful encounter between city mice and a woodland predator through a bobbing digital-video lens, and what it kicked off wasn't just a cycle of found-footage films, but themes of self-reflexive self-presentation that has figured into nearly every single one of its imitators.
It's arguable that no American horror movie of the last 40 years has said more about our culture of rapidly captured, real-time images—how they're made, how they're watched, and how they affect us—than Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's lo-fi stunt production, which was so believable as a faux-documentary because it was, for the most part, being filmed live and in real time by its central trio of actors.
Indeed, so much has been written about the making of The Blair Witch Project—the improvised dialogue; the long nights during which the crew terrorized the cast with spooky noises; the fortunate creation of Heather Donahue's iconic snot-nosed close-up—that its real-world backstory feels as mythological as any of its wonderfully vague expository dialogue about the evil history of the Black Hills Forest. One of the running, mordant jokes of the film is how heavy the cameras Heather and co are lugging around, which in turn means that they only want to shoot—or audio-tape—what's absolutely necessary, both while their documentary project is up and running normally and then later while they're being hunted. (Though the question remains why they would even bother lugging all that gear around while running for their lives.)
Flash forward a decade or so and a dozen movies were offering variations on (if not solutions to) this problem. The cameraman of Cloverfield felt obliged to document the apocalypse for posterity's sake, if nothing else; the telekinetic antagonist of Chronicle used his powers to levitate his camera and swoop it around flamboyantly. The only movie—and later franchise—to really challenge the Blair Witch brand for artistic and commercial clout was Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity, which hit upon the idea of a locked-off, stationary camera recording tiny flurries of activity around mostly sleeping protagonists, and played almost like an avant-garde structural film more than a blockbuster (or a strangely timely variation on surveillance culture in which pinhole cameras and evil forces alike watch us in our most unguarded private moments, at home alone). Paranormal Activity's underdog production history andamazing grassroots success were so similar to The Blair Witch Project's that it was uncanny, but where Myrick and Sanchez initially bungled their good fortune by signing off on a very bad sequel (Blair Witch: Book of Shadows, which dropped the mock-doc conceit and put nothing in its place), Peli parlayed his very well-played original idea into a series of mostly enjoyable sequels, especially Paranormal Activity 3, which was set in the 1990s—in the same period as the original Blair Witch Project—and uses the reduced technological capacities of the era to its advantage (including a great set piece involving an oscillating fan).
Wingard's Blair Witch (which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival), by contrast, is up-to-the-minute in every way. The first ten minutes of the movie are dedicated to inventorying all the cool stuff that the main characters (who are so bland and boring that I won't bother to name or describe them) are taking into the woods on their mission to investigate what happened to the filmmakers who died in the first movie. This is an important point, because it means that Blair Witch takes place in a world where The Blair Witch Project exists, but not as a popular blockbuster movie; rather, they've seen the footage from the original film as if was a "real" thing.
The wittier possibilities of following a group of plugged-in kids are scuttled as soon as it's revealed that there's no WiFi or cell coverage—no hashtag #witchhunt or Snapchatted vignettes of creepy trees—but overall there's so much more Wingard could have done in the context of our current selfie-obsessed moment. The cameras here never matter as anything except a storytelling device. The recent and very underrated horror film Unfriended used a laptop display and Facebook chat page to hint, literally and figuratively, at a ghost in the machine—and to suggest something sinister about the social media moment. For all its cutting-edge tech, Blair Witch doesn't rethink its more analog predecessor so much as remake it, beat for beat. And in the process, it somehow says less about the collision between modernity and mythology and our collective need (and ability) to communicate physical experience through lenses and screens than a film that came out before the advent of flip-phones.
To return to that opening question—"Do you see her?"—the answer is not worth spoiling here. But it's interesting that even though Blair Witch offers an increased number of perspectives, it doesn't reveal much—and it's unlikely that anybody is going to look back on it from any angle at all.
Follow Adam Nayman on Twitter.