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Blair Witch turns a modern horror classic into a jump-scare funhouse

Day 4 at the Toronto International Film Festival

Blair Witch (Photo: TIFF)
Blair Witch (Photo: TIFF)

If I could go back in time for the world premiere of one movie, I might choose The Blair Witch Project. It’s up there in the echelons of legendary film-festival screenings. Here was a no-budget, no-stars American horror movie that emerged from out of nowhere at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 1999. That first audience at that first screening had no idea of what to expect—and if the stories are to be believed, more than a few of those in attendance thought they were watching genuine found footage, as though someone had cruelly cobbled together a snuff film and spooled it up for them. It was a trick that could really only work once; the film’s mystique couldn’t survive the scrutiny that its buzz created. Oh to have been there to see the film cold, to sit there in that dark theater and wonder what in the unholy, black-of-night hell I was watching.

Last night, I stood in a line five blocks deep to attend the midnight Toronto premiere of a new Blair Witch movie. To say that this experience was different than the fabled Sundance one I retroactively envy would be an understatement. “This is a true story,” quipped director Adam Wingard to the packed crowd, made up of people who were there precisely because they knew exactly what to expect from the movie. ““Am I spoiling anything saying the cast is here?” added writer Simon Barrett, to more knowing laughter. The fake “realness” of found-footage horror was a joke that everyone there was in on. And the it’s-only-a-movie vibe of the intro turned out to be very appropriate for the movie itself: Blair Witch (Grade: B-) is too obviously orchestrated to replicate the primal, vérité unease of its predecessor. It’s more like a funhouse inspired by that seminal hit—scary in the safe way that sends popcorn flying, but it doesn’t linger much after the house lights have come back on.

Blair Witch (Photo: TIFF)

The reduced fear factor isn’t entirely Wingard and Barrett’s fault: Seventeen years later, the novelty of a fright flick shot like a documentary has entirely worn off; you can’t pull the wool back over people’s eyes. And as a lesser follow-up to the most influential of found-footage horror movies, Blair Witch is at least a hell of a lot more fun than Book Of Shadows. The plot sends a new group of documentarians, led by the younger brother of Heather Donahue’s character in the original, into the Black Hills forest of Maryland, in hopes of discovering what happened to the crew that disappeared there back in ’99. Following the usual up-the-ante strategy of horror sequels, the film makes everything bigger: There are more characters/victims, more cameras (including a drone), a little more gore, a lot more elaborate gags. But the basic tactics—ominous stick figures, ominous rocks, ominous noises in the dark—remain more or less intact.

You’re Next and The Guest established Wingard and Barrett as savvy remix artists, making distinctive entertainment out of the spare parts of older movies. But beyond toying with the element of time in an interesting way——let’s just say it passes differently in the Black Hills—Blair Witch doesn’t deviate in productive ways. The original’s power came from a steady build in dread, as its characters slowly realized how fucked they were and their panic became our own. Here, that mounting terror has been replaced by a succession of jump scares. Is it fair to hold this perfectly enjoyable new Blair Witch to the standards of the old one? Call it the usual reboot problem: Wingard and Barrett want to constantly remind viewers of the film they’re riffing on, which can only lead to unflattering comparison. Full review coming later this week.

I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (Photo: TIFF)

For a much more singular (though maybe ultimately less effective) dabble in supernatural horror, TIFF audiences can turn to I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (Grade: B-), playing as part of Toronto’s invariably interesting Vanguard program. It’s the second feature from Oz Perkins, son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins; I raved about his first one from the festival last year, back when it was still called February. (A24 has pushed the movie, now called The Blackcoat’s Daughter, to 2017. Don’t sleep on it, horror fans, even if its new name does make it sound like Merchant & Ivory.)

Perkins’ thing is atmosphere for atmosphere’s sake, which he applies this time to the story of a young nurse (Ruth Wilson) hired to take care of an elderly, ailing author of airport horror fiction in her haunted Massachusetts home. Opening with a dedication to the director’s famous father, Pretty Thing envelops the audience immediately in its carefully calibrated unease, achieved through a variety of unique methods: a distinctly literary running voice-over; an unnervingly affected lead performance; deep, pregnant pauses and hypnotic repetition. If I’m not as enamored of the film as I was of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it’s because it never escalates; a slow burn that burns too slowly, the movie establishes its mesmerizing mood and then just sits on it for 90 minutes, to the point where even the most patient, adventurous of genre fans may wish the filmmaker had come up with some kind of traditional scare, some “payoff.” (This is not a problem Blair Witch possesses, incidentally.) All that being said, Perkins has developed a style so controlled—and so entirely out of step with contemporary horror fads—that I can’t help but doubt my reservations. Consider the grade temporary, and check it out for yourself; Netflix is releasing the film eventually, hopefully sooner than the year-and-a-half we’ve had to wait for Perkins’ last movie to see the light of day.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea (Photo: TIFF)

Speaking of The Blackcoat’s Daughter (can I just call it February again?), I caught that film on a whim last year after being shut out of something else I had been planning to see. The same thing happened yesterday, when I was among probably a hundred passholders who showed up too late to get into the press & industry screening of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which has been earning rapturous reviews since its premiere at Telluride last week. (I’m hoping to get into it today—wish me luck!) Faced with a sudden dead slot in my schedule, I took a chance on the world premiere of another small film with an unwieldy title. And I’m glad I did, because My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea (Grade: B) charmed me. The first feature film by graphic novelist Dash Shaw, who designed the comic-within-the-movie in Rabbit Hole and can count A.V. Club comics expert Oliver Sava as a fan, High School is a kind of John Hughes disaster movie—an idiosyncratic animated comedy about a group of bickering students (voiced by the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, and Reggie Watts, among others) trying to escape their flooding high school, floor by floor. The humor is alternately dry, absurd, and mordant, and if I wish Shaw’s storytelling was as inventive as his filmmaking, his hand-drawn-and-acrylic animation style is endearingly analog. In an age when big-screen cartoons have become massive group efforts, it’s rewarding to encounter one that feels so individualistic, like some kid’s homeroom doodles brought to life.

Plus: More festival catch-up! The first documentary to win the Golden Bear (or top prize) at Berlin, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire At Sea (Grade: B-) looks at life on the Italian island of Lampedusa, but one of its main “story strands”—the one concerning illegal immigration and rescue-at-sea operations—is much more compelling than the other one. I mostly agree with Ignatiy on another Berlin winner, Things To Come (Grade: B), in which Mia Hansen-Løve chases the years-spanning Eden with a single year in the life of a middle-aged woman; it’s basically The Isabelle Huppert Show, but when is that a bad thing? Finally, I kind of loved The Handmaiden (Grade: A-). Probably Park Chan-wook’s best movie, it keeps doubling back on itself and compounding both its outrageousness and con-job trickery, while also remaining a strangely romantic love story about seeing the real person beneath the deceptions they present.