I closed my eyes, put my head down, and took a deep breath around the 90-minute mark of Blair Witch. On screen was Lisa the Budding Documentarian, weathered, weary, and stuck in the muddy jaws of an underground tunnel, making a last ditch effort to escape unseen forces. I don't consider myself claustrophobic, or I didn't until Lisa's second scream of agony, triggered by the realization that this earthen intestine was her new home. But I felt the air growing thinner in the theater. The camera just stood there, doing nothing for her. Peeking through my fingers wasn't an option. My brain was telling me I was there in that tunnel, too. I needed a moment.
I needed several moments. A direct sequel to 1999's The Blair Witch Project, the horror movie phenomenon that fooled enough people with its faux-documentary style and made-up lore to demand an entire "found-footage" genre, this one is most effective when it slows down and dredges the audience's fears. Rarely do Hollywood horrors leave you feeling this lost, this helpless. For a few of us psychos, that's a positive.
The movie follows another group of 20-somethings as they venture into the Black Hills Forest, where the spirit of a disgruntled witch supposedly resides. But these hikers want nothing to do with the Blair Witch legend; the ringleader, Jeremy, just wants to find his missing sister Heather, last seen in the recorded footage of the original movie. With an arsenal of bluetooth ear cameras, some flashlights, and a drone, Jeremy thinks he can do what 20 years of police investigation could not.
Like most of The Blair Witch Project's successors, Blair Witch's found footage format can be a blessing -- a complete immersion into first-person terror -- and a curse. Constantly rolling cameras translate to constantly talking characters, and witty 2016 millennials grate more than disaffected '90s alt-rock youths. With every scene acting as lead-up to an inevitable encounter, Blair Witch punctuates the wandering with peekaboo surprises and "what was that?!" noises. The jump-scares are a necessary evil, eroding the audience to their most vulnerable state.
Blair Witch comes from You're Next and The Guest duo Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, who stretch traces of mythology built into a horror movie mind-bender. First comes the confusion, then a psychedelic disorientation, and finally seven tons of inevitable death -- the kind you might feel if you were stuck in a tunnel with a 200-year-old demonic force behind you.
None of it is that simple -- I said no spoilers and I meant no spoilers -- but the dread conjured by Blair Witch is usually reserved for subconsciousness nightmares or AP tests you forgot to study for (or both, if you were me in high school). A forest drenched in darkness looks the same backwards and forwards. Screw with time and "pitch black" becomes more of a state of being than a state of light. Add the right type of watery-eyed trembling -- Callie Hernandez, who plays Lisa, can broadcast fear like few others -- and you create an effect that disrupts with more force than any "boo."
With pain comes relief. I eventually looked up from my mini anxiety attack and laughed. Those final spurts of slow-burn direction were devilish. The soundscapes, ripped from what I can only assume was a CD of ambient nature tracks covered by Sisters of Mercy, were cartoonishly perfect. And even in cramped spaces, Wingard and Barrett lean into what we know (or think we know) about the Blair Witch. The payoffs lingered. By the end, Blair Witch was under my skin -- not real, but real enough.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.