The filming of “Blair Witch” proceeded last year under the fake title “The Woods,” presumably to maximize the surprise of its release, announced at July’s Comic-Con to the huzzahs of fans. It was a brilliant marketing move because anyone who thinks about it for more than a minute would have to wonder why a sequel to “The Blair Witch Project” needed to be made in the first place. After all, the 1999 original — the first “found footage” horror film — derived its power from novelty, and novelty doesn’t work twice.
But the 1999 original also grossed $250 million worldwide on a $60,000 budget, so you’d have to be a fool not to make a sequel. The problem is that there already was one, the generally dire “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” (2000), not to mention countless found-footage rip-offs in the years since, some of them inspired (the “Paranormal Activities” series) but most of them a waste of a perfectly good battery charger.
The upshot is that “Blair Witch” comes to the party very late and very tired, and it doesn’t improve from there. Once again a hardy, youthful band of idiots is heading into the scaaary second-growth woods around the town of Burkittsville, Md., with its overlapping legends of 17th-century witches and 20th-century serial killers.
Once again, they’re wired to record, and one of the few interesting points of the movie is noting how the technology has changed. James (James Allen McCune), Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Peter (Brandon Scott), and Ashley (Corbin Reid) all have mini-cams attached to their heads, which — breakthrough — lets director Adam Wingard use as many angles and reverse shots as he wants.
The group also has at its disposal several walkie-talkies (useful), GPS devices (useless), and a drone-cam (pretty shots of the tree canopy and that’s it). James is searching for evidence of his sister, the first movie’s Heather, and he and his friends are joined in their quest by a creepy pair of locals (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), who are also dutifully videotaping everything.
And right there is what’s wrong with “Blair Witch” — there’s too much going on. The first film derived its dread from simplicity: branches snapping and voices in the night, pixelated cinematography shot on the run, just enough hints of a backstory to keep us tantalized. It wasn’t art. It was barely even a campfire tale. But it worked.
The new movie tells us too much and trips over its feet whenever it tries to show us — it’s impossible to figure out what’s happening to whom in the blurry action sequences. The characters are stock genre victims (don’t go in the basement, Lisa!), and the movie leans so heavily on “boo” shots that the audience’s shrieks turn to giggles and then sighs. The approach that once reinvented a genre has itself become generic.
There are a few freaky moments in “Blair Witch”: a minor but ghastly foot injury, a glimpse of something pale and awful in the woods. If you’re young, naïve, and seeking 93 minutes of acceptable date-clutching, the movie may fit the bill. But there’s nothing here you couldn’t shoot yourself — and probably have.
Directed by Adam Wingard. Written by Simon Barrett. Starring James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 93 minutes. R (language, terror, disturbing images)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.