If there were any film whose lightning would seem impossible to recapture in a bottle, it’s 'The Blair Witch Project'. The you-are-there vérité techniques that gave the 1999 horror movie such a frightening immediacy have passed into cliché, and there’s no way today’s audiences would fall for the original marketing campaign’s 'It really happened!' pitch. So it’s something of a small miracle that the 17-years-later 'Blair Witch', essentially a sequel-as-remake (ignore 2000’s 'Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2'), emerges as satisfying in its own right and pretty damn scary.
Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, the accomplished team behind 'You’re Next' and 'The Guest', reference the pervasiveness of homemade footage by opening on a website: newly discovered video – apparently of original victim Heather –has been posted. Her brother, James (James Allen McCune), is inspired to head back into Maryland’s Black Hills Forest in search of his long-lost sibling, and he’s joined by film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid). They’re outfitted with high-tech cameras including GoPros and even a drone. With all this technology in their hands, there’s no way they can get lost, right? (Right?)
Wingard and Barrett briefly acknowledge the prior movie’s legacy, but they mostly devote themselves to rerunning its scenario with the dial turned up to 11. With a few new wrinkles worked into the mythology, particularly a nasty, literal twist on those creepy stick figures, the experience proceeds from disorienting to anxious to full-on, hurtling, gasp-inducing panic. (Those who felt motion sickness from watching the original film, be warned.) The cast members, not quite the unknowns their predecessors were, nonetheless disappear into their desperate roles with impressive commitment. Above all, 'Blair Witch' is a triumph of sound design. The cracks, crunches and rumbles from deep in the woods enhance a terror that’s pierced only by the beam of a flashlight.