In the summer of 1999, the microbudgeted horror film The Blair Witch Project became a must-see horror sensation. I’ll never forget sinking into my theater seat in terror, immersed so viscerally in the experience that I might as well have been cowering alone in the dark woods of Maryland, like the movie’s characters. If Jaws kept beachgoers out of the water, The Blair Witch Project made audiences eternally fearful of camping.
In 2000, Hollywood fast-tracked a disastrous sequel, Blair Witch: Book of Shadows. It was unscary, far removed from the essence and elements that made the original so spectacular, and effectively killed off the franchise.
Maybe in retrospect, though, that was a good thing. At least I can say that now that I’ve seen Blair Witch, the unexpected sequel formerly known as The Woods. Its true identity was revealed at a buzzed-about screening at San Diego Comic-Con in July, and now the horror movie is haunting the Toronto International Film Festival, where it screened in front of a very enthusiastic audience late Sunday night.
“Found footage” movies have all but run their course in the 17 years since The Blair Witch Project, but the timing couldn’t have been better for a reinvention like Blair Witch. Directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) from a script by his frequent collaborator Simon Barrett, the film cleverly updates the formula for 2016. In the original, Heather (Heather Donahue) and friends captured the mind-f—ery they encounter at the hands of the titular, unseen villainess via old-fashioned video cameras, but the doomed millennials in Blair Witch document it all with shiny new gadgets: tiny cameras that capture their POVs from an earpiece, drones, and more.
The movie also gives its victims a perfectly plausible excuse for making the highly irresponsible decision to trek through the infamously haunted terrain. New footage, purportedly of Heather, has been found and uploaded to YouTube, which gives her now-grown younger brother James (James Allen McCune) hope that she might still be out there. His friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) plans to document the search on film, and his best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) come along for support. Along the way, they’re joined by a pair of enigmatic locals (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) with inside knowledge of the forest, adding a contemporary slice of Deliverance to the proceedings.
As you’d expect, all goes to hell once the sun sets. There’s a freakish injury that will hold them back, increasing tension among the campers, and of course, the greatest trick the Witch ever played: the utter discombobulation of their navigation. (I do wish there were fewer scares that involved campers violently bumping into each other in the dark. Watch where you’re going, guys.)
One of the most effective elements of the original was that it abided by the old filmmaking rule that the less you see, the better. It’s ultimately why that simple climactic shot, that dude standing frozen in the corner of a cabin, is forever burned into our consciousness. The sequel shows us more of what’s lurking — as it should, frankly, after 17 years — but never too much, and never enough to detract from the Witch‘s intrigue.
Where Blair Witch manages to outperform its predecessor is in the third act. The film’s final 30 minutes are an unrelenting sequence of nonstop terror, with no daybreak or punchline in sight. I can’t recall ever witnessing as long a stretch of effectively sustained fright in a horror movie, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Or at least to see someone in a corner.
Blair Witch opens in theaters on Sept. 16.
Watch the trailer: