Filmmakers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s newest movie Blair Witch, a sequel to the highly influential found footage classic The Blair Witch Project, hits theaters this weekend.
Anyone who signs on the dotted line to resurrect a beloved franchise takes a big risk, but it’s somehow more severe in the horror genre. Bad sequels are a dime a dozen, but to somehow desecrate the creeped-out sanctity of the original so long after it came out should earn you your own haunting by the Blair Witch herself. That would be true with nearly anybody but Wingard and Barrett.
The adept horror filmmaking duo have subverted genre tropes before, like with the action/thriller send-up The Guest, or their take on the home invasion genre with You’re Next. But they earned their rightful place behind the shaky-cams of Blair Witch because of their essential involvement in the first two entries of the found footage V/H/S series.
Released in 2012, the found footage anthology film included five shorts linked together by the ingenious idea that each segment is actually an unmarked VHS tape found by characters in a bookended segment titled “Tape 56”, which was written by Barrett and directed by Wingard. The nameless cinephile criminal hooligans of Wingard’s segment film themselves destroying an abandoned house and assaulting a woman in what looks like a mall parking lot before filming themselves being offered a large sum of money to break into another house to steal a single VHS tape.
There, they find a dead old man sitting in front of a static TV surrounded by piles of grimy, unmarked tapes, and must pop them in at random to try and determine which is the one they’re supposed to retrieve. Needless to say, each hooligan ends up disappearing and the dead old man isn’t exactly dead.
Wingard’s wraparound short film is ingenious because of the way it weaves throughout the story giving its obscolete technology a narrative foundation, but also because of the low-res pixelation of the camcorder footage. It offers a faux-realistic patina into the inappropriate voyeurism on display, which is something that gave The Blair Witch Project such a horrific charge. It invites us into the world in a way that wouldn’t be possible if it was a normal, non-found-footage film. While Blair Witch is decidedly more high definition than the original and “Tape 56,” Wingard still manages to keep camera formats the key to his found-footage style.
For the follow-up sequel a year later, Wingard and Barrett split filmmaking duties with Barrett writing and directing the wraparound narrative, titled “Tape 49,” while he wrote the short film segment called “Phase I Clinical Trials,” which Wingard directed and starred in. “Tape 49” follows in a similar fashion to the bookend from the first movie, except this time two private investigators tasked with finding a missing kid come across piles of unmarked VHS tapes in his dorm room. It has some adequate scares, but it’s Wingard’s segment that stands out.
“Phase I Clinical Trials” stars Wingard as Herman, a car crash victim who receives an experimental ocular camera implant to replace his right eye. Warned that he may experience “glitches” because the doctor and the tech company are still beta testing the implant, it soon causes Herman to see dead people around his apartment.
It’s a perfect found footage construct, making the aesthetic a necessary component to what’s happening on-screen. When Herman has to deal with a small child ghost or worse, the short film doesn’t have to resort to overwrought explanations of why he’s still filming. We’re watching the terrifying footage precisely because he can’t stop filming. He’d incorporate this into the updated camera tech of Blair Witch, showing why it’s perhaps the scariest implication of the found footage genre.