My expectations weren’t high when I saw the new Blair Witch movie, so I wasn’t too disappointed. It was entertaining enough, and had a few genuinely tense moments. But more than anything the sequel reminded me just how amazing the first one was, and it was easy to see why. Blair Witch feels momentary; it’ll make you jump a few times in the theater, but it won’t keep you up at night. The Blair Witch Project is quite the opposite: lacking in jump scares but filled with deeply psychological horror. When compared to one another, the two feel like how-to and how-not-to guides for making a horror movie. I decided to analyze them based on how they each handled specific elements of their respective stories.
Note: This analysis contains spoilers for both films.
The first third of The Blair Witch Project isn’t particularly eventful, but it’s never boring. The interviews with the local townsfolk, along with the introductions of our soon-to-be stranded protagonists, establish a subtly foreboding atmosphere. In the first few scenes after the trio finds themselves lost, they’re more annoyed than scared – but that changes with each night they’re forced to spend in the woods. The slow-and-steady pace of the group’s descent into hopelessness creates a suffocating sense of inevitability that remains just as – if not more – effective on repeat viewings.
Blair Witch is efficient in its setup, quickly introducing the cast of characters and sending them into the woods soon after. But aside from a few minor occurrences early on, the horror element goes from zero to one hundred about forty percent of the way through – and due to some time bending on the witch’s part, the movie takes place at night for the rest of its running time. The original’s daytime scenes provided a necessary breather from the intense nighttime sequences, but also produced an existential horror of their own. Blair Witch doesn’t allow its characters any time to contemplate their situation, depriving the audience of the brutal, all-too-real arguments that made the original so terrifying.
The Witch’s Abilities
The witch’s intangibility in The Blair Witch Project is a perfect example of the terror that comes from suggestion. All of the witch’s physical activity – be it placing stones and stick men at the campsite or covering Josh’s backpack in slime – happens off-screen. The closest she gets to physical contact with the main characters are the attacks on the tents, and even then there’s nothing inherently supernatural about them.
Blair Witch eschews the subtle interactions of the first movie, making the witch a powerful, distinctly physical presence. She pushes down trees, pulls tents into the air, infects feet with slithering creatures, and gruesomely contorts a girl to death. These over-the-top displays of strength give the movie a campy Final Destination vibe at times, and quickly outstay their welcome.
The Blair Witch Project is painfully intimate, with a cast of three for most of its running time. Each actor is wholly believable in his or her role, due in part to the largely improvised dialogue. And thanks to the rawness of the three central performances, the group’s deteriorating mental states and increasingly hostile exchanges are nightmares unto themselves. The moments when Heather discovers Josh’s remains, or when Mike gleefully admits what he did with the map, are all the more horrific because we believe they’re real people.
Blair Witch takes the Saw II approach to a horror sequel: the same thing, but with more people. But while Saw II’s larger cast made it enjoyable, Blair Witch’s is a mark against it. The characters are likable but forgettable, and their deaths lack the devastating impact of those in the original.
In the original film, we never see the witch in any way, shape, or form. All we get is a local’s chilling description of a woman covered in horse-like hair from head to toe, and even this is never confirmed. The filmmakers understood that the idea of the Blair Witch was far more terrifying than any creature effect could ever hope to be.
We see the witch. Admittedly, we only get brief glimpses, but they’re still far too much. By attaching a solid, physical appearance to what was previously a haunting myth, the new version sacrifices any lasting fear for a fleeting jump scare.
Ultimately, it feels a little unfair to compare these two movies. The Blair Witch Project was lightning in a bottle – the kind of movie that can never be replicated, despite its countless imitators. But it’s still disheartening that Blair Witch settles for being a poor man’s retread that makes every mistake the first movie avoided.
One of The Blair Witch Project’s greatest strengths is that it remains a deeply disturbing film without its supernatural elements. It’s heavy with the existential despair that comes from a completely real-life scenario: a group of campers getting lost in the woods. Blair Witch, meanwhile, completely leans on the supernatural aspect, sacrificing any realism in favor of a jump-scare fest that’s as disposable as any of its genre’s contemporaries. Both movies prove a tried-and-true lesson when it comes to evoking genuine, enduring horror through film: less is more.