Wingard: Blair Witch (2016)
Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch is, as the title suggests, a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. Like Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, it takes place in a world where the original film was circulated and scrutinised, and revolves around a group of teenagers who venture into the woods to try and figure out what happened. The difference, however, is that Blair Witch 2 was released fairly close to The Blair Witch Project, while Blair Witch was released a full generation later. The teenagers in this film – James (James Allen McCune), Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Peter (Brandon Scott) and Talia (Valorie Curry) – were all toddlers when the first generation of investigators set out into the Maryland woods in 1994. In fact, James is the younger brother of Heather (Heather Donohue), the main character of the original film, and has returned to the woods twenty years later – the film is set in 2014 – to figure out what has happened to her. At the same time, these teenagers all come from a different technological generation, one with much more access to recording devices, as evinced in the arsenal of equipment that they lay out in the opening scenes, from an earpiece camera with built-in GPS to a portable drone camera that they can use to surveil the woods from the air. Curiously, none of them pack smart phones, but the film’s explanation is that there’s nowhere to charge them in the woods, making memory cards and DV tapes more reliable.
From the outset, Wingard acknowledges that the glitch that made the original film so uncanny has become part of the fabric of everyday life in the mid-2010s. Whereas The Blair Witch Project arrived at the woods fairly quickly, Blair Witch spends more time on the teenagers’ daily lives, through a variety of situations that are built around multiple screens and their awareness of multiple screens. In the opening scenes, we move from them rehearsing selfies at a local nightclub, to playing a first-person shooter in their lounge room, to watching YouTube footage of the original film together. In all of these cases, the digital address of the cameras the teenagers are using to shoot this plethora of footage become just another part of a broader digital feedback loop, in which every action is shot, recorded and remediated before it has been completely conceptualised. The sense of being tethered to a single device is therefore offset by the sheer multiplicity of devices on offer, meaning Wingard will have to work considerably harder to match the claustrophobia of the original.
More generally, it’s becomes much harder, by the time we arrive at Blair Witch, to conceptualise or visualise spaces off the grid. All it took in the original film was stepping into the woods, but in an era of GPS navigation and digital space, no part of America is truly isolated, or truly unknowable. Over the first part of the film, Wingard therefore makes a number of concerted efforts to envisage a space that is genuinely resistant to the various recording devices that the teenagers arm themselves with this time around. First, and most dramatically, Blair Witch displaces the final scene of The Blair Witch Project, and the house where it occurred, from regular space and time, by revealing that there was no house in the area where the video tape was found, a detail that was left out of the original narrative. Second, the woods are framed as Southern in a more emphatic way in Blair Witch, as the four teenagers grudgingly hook up with Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Lane (Wes Robinson), a couple who have been investigating the Blair Witch for the last couple of years, and only agree to help out if they can come along as well and document the process for themselves.
We first meet Ashley and Lane in their living room, which is festooned with an enormous Confederate flag, causing James, Lisa, Peter and Talia some consternation, but especially Peter and Talia, who are both African American. From this point onwards, the Confederate South is framed as a repository of occult powers, strong enough to disrupt or even destroy the clean gridline of the North. Directed by the team responsible for Paradise Lost, the investigation into the West Memphis Three, Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows often gestured towards this Southern angle, but never articulated it as directly as Wingard does here. In part, that’s because the contrast between those parts of America that have access to cutting-edge technology, and those parts that are still mired in older technology, has become much sharper in the last twenty years, just as the distinction between wealthier cities and impoverished rural regions has grown more dramatic as well. While nowhere is exactly off the grid any more, some areas can only access the grid through older and less convenient technology. Much of what constitutes Southern Gothic taps into the idea that the South is one of these areas – a place where messages arrive later than they do elsewhere, and often too late, as well as a landscape where mediation of self and world doesn’t occur as fluidly or as seamlessly as it does in the urbane North, or the West Coast.
For that reason, Ashley and Lane feel both geographically and generationally remote from the other four teenagers. In her sullen and moody introspection, and her dyed purple hair, Lane plays as a late hangover of 90s Goth, which Ashley exudes the manic, ludic energy of 90s horror protagonists. Together, they represent a point of connection to the media ecology of the original, meaning that the other four teenagers have no choice but to approach the Blair Witch through them, relying on them to the lead the way as they traipse through the woods. Their Southern credentials make Ashley and Lane more entitled to speak on behalf of the witch, as when they replicate the hanging totems of the original film during their first night on the forest, but it also makes them more receptive to the witch as well. Despite splitting up from the other four teenagers fairly early in the piece, they continually circle back into the action, always approaching from what seems to be a later point in the story, and a later moment of contact with the witch. In fact, the first ruptures in the film’s temporality occur around Ashley and Lane, who depart the campsite on the second morning, but then return on the second night, terrified and harrowed, claiming that they have been out wandering for five nights, and that the days have been getting shorter.
The third way in which Wingard distends the space between the grid and whatever lies outside it is through the approach to the woods itself. Time and again, the teenagers emphasise thresholds, different points along the journey, making particular use of lingering backwards shots, first of the car as they head into the edge of the woods, and then of the barrier between the regular woods and the Black Woods, marked by a barbed wire fence and the lightning-blasted tree where the original video cassette was found. As they reconstruct the trajectory of the original teenagers, their narrative comes quite close to the paranarrative of the original film, present only in the teaser trailers and the subsequent publications, which detailed the discovery of the car and video tape by the local police. In that sense, Blair Witch is a tribute to the advertising campaign of the original film as much as the film itself, just as Wingard is aware that this campaign was every bit as eventful as the film itself. It doesn’t really matter, then, that much of Blair Witch follows The Blair Witch Project, at least in its opening stages, since this is precisely what the teenagers are trying to achieve, making their time in the woods even creepier. I remember being surprised by the austerity of the original film – the fact that it only offered the found footage, nothing more, nothing less – and that works well here, allowing the brute fact of the footage to be seamlessly incorporated into these teenagers’ lives, just as it was for the original audience.
While the story may be familiar for the first thirty minutes in the woods, however, certain things are intensified here. In the original, the imagery of foliage signalled a new opacity and inscrutability to the cinematic image – the difficulty, but also the necessity, of trying to visualise and conceptualise a space that was off-grid. Once again, I remember being surprised by the austerity of these images of the wooded landscape, and how little they yielded in the way of a clear threat or source of horror. Beyond a certain point, the film encouraged us to stop looking for a regular antagonist, and instead focus on all the subliminal glitches that digital footage revealed when you looked at it for long enough. At a more granular level, there was an eerie finitude to the inscrutability of raw materials – stones, wood, leaves, dirt – in response to the camera’s digital address, turning the footage itself into yet another material object that couldn’t be properly parsed or processed. In Christian Keathley’s terms, this made The Blair Witch Project both an exhaustion of classical cinephilia, and an injunction to a new kind of digital cinephilia, since cinephilia, as he understands it, is an obsession with the unintended contingencies of the cinematic image – a process that he likens to the spectacle of wind blowing through foliage, which has entranced and obsessed spectators since the earliest films in the late nineteenth century.
Much of The Blair Witch Project was nothing but wind and trees, forcing the audience to fixate so obsessively on this combination that cinephilia started to exhaust the cinematic image and encourage the audience to attach to something in the image that remained just beneath the threshold of perception. Twenty years later, Wingard is aware that the generation now heading into the woods have become so au fait with recording devices that they can settle into cinematic framing more or less intuitively, meaning that the woods here are initially presented in a much more classically cinematic palette. Yet that just makes their gradual devolution and disorientation more emphatic, as a series of actions by the witch collapse the textures between the foliage and the forest floor, and between the horizontal and vertical planes of the forest. Whether it’s a giant tree falling on James, or Talia climbing a tree to recover a drone camera, the woods are gradually dissociated from any clear spatial plane, until the trees seem to be perpetually crashing down, trapping the teenagers beneath boughs, branches and leaves until it is impossible to orient themselves in any way.
This continuous collapse of foliage leads onto the most dramatic departure from the original film, as Wingard takes Blair Witch into an entirely different spatiotemporal state in order to capture the strangeness of envisaging a space and time outside the grid in the mid 2010s. At first, this shift is mainly temporal, as the four teenagers wake up the second “morning” to realise that it is already late in the afternoon, before encountering Ashley and Lane, who claim to have been walking for five days since they left them. Clearly, the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer, but they don’t have much time to acclimatise to this situation, since by the time night sets in again the darkness has settled for good, plunging the third act of the film into a sustained nocturnal zone that quickly erodes any coherent sense of space as well. During this period, the characters embark on even more erratic and elliptical trajectories from the campsite out to the surrounding woods, while the static bursts that signify changes in recording devices, or shifts from one recording period to the next, simply give way to more night, creating a schismatic and fragmented atmosphere that plays more like a series of snapchat stories than a film with any semblance of linearity.
During this period, the witch also ramifies more as an absence as well, a gust of wind that perpetually descends to deprive the characters of their ability to sensorily grasp the woods, and eroding their sense of time and space with each new encounter. For that reason, I didn’t find the occasional glimpses of the witch that much of the problem, as some critics did, since she’s couched in a much more dramatic silence and vacuity than in the original film. The biggest threat to the witch at this point is the drone camera that the teenagers have brought, not merely because its seamless images are inimical to the glitchy aesthetic that she has cast over the recording equipment, but because the drone also rivals her own panoptic and disembodied gaze over the woods. The witch therefore cements this endless night by destroying the drone camera, and making the first point of contact that we see by way of the destroyed drone camera. Night now stops feeling like night, since there’s no promise of a morning to come, instead plunging us into a darkness so deep that it abstracts the film from any discernible notions of time and space, finally bringing the remaining teenagers to the witch’s house, which only appears once heavy rain consolidates the gloom.
This house may be the destination of the film, but it is a destination that has displaced itself as the teenagers have moved closer to it, removing James and Lisa even further from regular time and space once they enter, and shifting them into an abstract zone that feels drawn more from stealth gaming than from the original movie. At this point, Wingard’s style also becomes properly post-continuous, with jump-cuts glitching us in and out of the same scene, and the camera often appearing to return to where we last left it, only to reveal that some unnamed amount of time has passed, or that we have shifted to a different space entirely. It is as if the last threshold in accessing the witch requires the camera to forego its own capacity for continuity, or as if the witch needs to embed discontinuity even more firmly within the device, rather than simply destroying and manipulating the device from the outside, in order to compensate for the evolution of cameras over the last twenty years.
In the process, the house seems to sink into the earth, overwhelmed by its own overdetermined image, until the action ends up in a dirt tunnel deep beneath the basement, clogged with mud and water, and jagged with tree roots sticking out at odd angles. This is the last point of refuge for Lisa, the final survivor, but it’s also where she finally loses control of the camera, which spins ahead of her and provides us with footage of her reaching forward to try and regain her handle on it. In order to do so, however, she has to take her hands away from the business of digging and clawing through the tunnel, leading to an agonising sequence in which she flicks the camera ahead before contorting herself through the tunnel, then repeats the process over and over, as her efforts to regain control of the film’s image take a traumatic toll on her body. It is in this elastic zone, this space of partial and provisional control over the images Lisa is disseminating, that the witch arrives for the final showdown. In the original film, any direct confrontation with the witch was impossible, since to even look at her, let alone record her, was tantamount to death, so terrifying was her image. In effect, the witch was incapable of mediation, or was the site of mediation itself, meaning that any attempt by the teenagers to mediate her through their own devices, or to mediate themselves through her, led to a gap in meaning, a blankness that created a new kind of non-ending, neither providing closure or a traditional cliffhanger.
Twenty years later, that non-ending is intensified, as Lisa films the witch arriving over her shoulder, watching her own found footage tape before it even ends, and effectively displacing the audience from the film, discontinuing them as a point of reference as the witch’s discontinuous presence reaches its climax. Whereas the characters were an awkward middle term between the witch and the camera in The Blair Witch Project, by the end of Blair Witch the witch and camera have fused into one alien entity, not unlike the demonic cameras of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Once again, the camera falls to the floor, abruptly severed from human agency, but in this case there’s no guarantee that a human will pick it up again, or that the witch will conveniently leave it somewhere for humans to find. Instead, both vanish into a world of witchy media, or dark media, leaving only a sombre sense of finitude in their wake, and the audience in the incoherent position of witnessing a film that may never have been made available to human agency in the first place. In that self-defeating gesture, that sense of watching a film not made for human eyes, lies the unsettling finitude of Blair Witch, which doesn’t continue The Blair Witch Project so much as accentuate all the limits that it set itself, finally collapsing us back into the original film, only to reveal that the original had even less space and time for us than we imagined.
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