Blair Witch Review

People seem to forget it nowadays but when The Blair Witch Project came out, it was a cultural landmark. Nothing else like it had been created before, and it then ushered in the “found-footage” trope that has been prevalent in the early part of the 2000s. Some people loved it, some hated it. Myself, probably in the middle (although it has been a while since seeing it). Twenty years on, does the new Blair Witch carry on the legacy?

Blair Witch stars James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid and is directed by Adam Wingard. the film follows the brother of Heather from the first film (McCune) who collects a set of friends and a documentary filmmaker to venture into the woods to see if they can find his sister.

In the original, it’s widely known that the cast were just coming into their careers and were genuinely scared of their surroundings. The new cast feel like they are more acting rather that reacting to the things around them, making it feel a little more staged. It follows a more conventional style of filmmaking with stock characters (promiscuous girl, wacky black guy, weird locals), giving us tropes we recognise so we can focus more on the woods and action rather than them.

The film is set up like a found footage movie, but updated to modern times. Drones, little headpiece cameras and an all-matter of gizmos such as GPS and walkie-talkies are brought in, which is an interesting addition. These people are actually going into the forest to look for something, not messing about with a camera. Little bits of the equipment get used here and there, but to no great effect other than some new visuals. The first half of the film is all shaking cameras and no real coherency, which eventually started to give me a migraine. It does calm down in the second half, so it’s half redeemed. When the original was made, the marketing convinced so many people that the film was real, that we were watching the last known recording of the three filmmakers. Now that we know that it was all basically fabricated, the sequel was a bit of a non-starter. We know it’s fake, we know it’s made-up, and no amount of people holding cameras or devices is going to convince me otherwise. It is basically a beat-for-beat remake of the original, but without the clever marketing.

Sadly, the spectre of most horror films nowadays, the jump scare, it used to full effect. Most of the time it’s not even anything remotely frightening, just loud camera glitches or microphone pops, which really get irritating after a while. After getting jump-scared by two of her friends, the main female lead says “Can people please stop doing that!”, almost reading the audience members minds. Again, the second act brings it together, with an excellent mix of some Cronenberg-style body horror, a genuinely tense “hearing-monster-walk-around-you” set-piece, a little glimpse of what could be a witch and an ending with a reveal which is novel and interesting. Good horror should leave it open-ended, and the second half does deliver. We even see what those stickmen are eventually used for, and it’s clever and fun.

Looking back at the whole of the Blair Witch, you can almost see the twenty years of horror that it’s tried to keep up with. You obviously get the nods to the original, but also little flashes of things like the VHS series and The Descent. The new stuff it brings to the table is superb and lends a lot of richness to the lore of the Blair Witch, but the basic retread will put of people who didn’t like the first one. If you hated the original, you will hate this, but if like me you were impartial or liked the original, you might get a kick out of it.

Score: 5/10 An abysmal first act leads into a slightly stronger ending.

The Visit Review

Note to the reader: I always try and leave out spoilers in my review, but you may guess M. Night Shyamalan’s signature dumb twist from my review (I guessed it ten minutes into the film and it’s a staple of his films so I’m not spoiling the fact that it’s in there). Therefore, reader discretion is advised.

M. Night Shyamalan was once one of the most promising new directors in Hollywood. His debut film, The Sixth Sense is still regarded as one of the best suspense thrillers of modern times. His later works however include such awful films such as Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Happening and After Earth. With a reputation so tarnished by big budgets, when I heard that Shyamalan was going back to a low-budget thriller I was actually thinking, “This could be a return to form”. Does The Visit mark the often maligned director’s transition back into the forefront of Hollywood?

The Visit stars Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie and is directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The film follows siblings Becca (DeJonge) and Tyler (Oxenbould) as they go visit their elderly grandparents for a week for the first time.

The short answer to the question I asked at the end of the introduction is no. No, The Visit does not show us that Shyamalan is a good horror director. It doesn’t even show us that he is a competent director. The Visit shows a writer/director that has moved from an outside auteur with a new approach to storytelling to a man so high on his own hubris he cannot tell when his own creations are cinematic abominations. Nobody wants to hear that their work is bad, but someone needs to tell Shyamalan straight to his face that he is not destined to become a filmmaker, slowly take the camera off him and move him away from whatever film set he is on.

The film, like many horror films recently uses found footage to tell its story. The eldest sibling, Becca, is an aspiring film director, so at least the film has a coherent reason for looking the way it does, rather than the usual reason of “we have no money, so this is the best we can do.” This sadly falls apart pretty soon, as there are some scenes when all characters are in frame, but the camera is still following them, showing that Shyamalan couldn’t even stick to a single style of filmmaking, instead just deciding to make the camera a floating deity in the middle of the scene.

As well as directing, M. Night Shyamalan also has a writing credit on the film. And just like his ability to direct a film, the writing falls flat at every turn. The Visit is filled with several “jokes” that would make even the most easily amused man in the world groan at the sheer idiocy on display. Along with the tired jokes are several pop culture references which even now are starting to feel a bit dated, such as a protracted dig by the younger brother Tyler at One Direction. Tyler is also a wannabe-rapper, who at several moments in the film turns to camera and starts to rap. It’s incredibly cringe-worthy to watch, and feels like Shyamalan thought “Rap music is what the children love these days, let’s put it in!” The young actor even raps over the end credits, in a bid to beat Mickey Rourke’s rap at the end of Rogue Warrior as the most out-of-place rap in the history of the world.

The worst writing in the film though is how the two elderly characters are written. Remember the film Ruth and Alex that came out a few months ago? (It’s alright if you didn’t, it wasn’t that good). That film’s central idea was “Screw young people”. The Visit has the opposite idea, and views elderly people as horrible. Small common quirks of senior citizens, as well as how they try and keep their dignity while trying to live without assistance is exploited in the film to no end, including a supposed big dramatic scene involving a used adult diaper. The beginning of the film, both the elderly characters are lovely and friendly, but the film changes tone so quickly that the final reveal of the secret about the house and its inhabitants has no build up.

The majority of the apparent scares in the film come from the odd behaviour of the grandparents, which makes the film seem a little bit ageist for the sake of scares. The rest of the scares are of the loud bang variety, which become tiresome and annoying after the first one since you can see them coming from a mile off. During these moments I would put a hand in front of my eyes and look at the floor, not through a sense of the film being scary, but because I didn’t want to be agitated by the film drawing out a sense of danger.

I hate being startled, it don’t seek it out for entertainment. Some readers might be thinking, “But that’s what you get from a horror film,” but that’s not true. Films like When A Stranger Calls, Psycho or The House At The End Of Time, they know how to create a sense of fear equal or greater to The Visit but they don’t signpost it, making the scares better. Even when these three films do jumps scares, they are complemented by another type of horror, be it a sense of isolation (When A Stranger Calls) or an upending of movie tropes (Psycho). These films know how to scare right, The Visit just tries to startle you when it can.

In summary, you should not watch The Visit. I would maybe only recommend it if you’re an aspiring film director and you wanted a great example of an absolute mess of a film, but that is a very big MAYBE.

Score: 1/10 A very good contender for worst of the year.

Unfriended Review

Is horror making a comeback? I don’t remember when horror became bad but with the release of films like Texas Chainsaw 3D, Ouija and Antisocial it seemed horror had gone the way of the dodo. But with recent releases like The Babadook, It Follows and now Unfriended, it seems that horror is back with a bang.

Unfriended stars Shelley Hennig, Will Peltz and Jacob Moses Storm and is about a group of teenagers, who on the anniversary of a fellow classmates death, are supposedly haunted by the dead girl through their computers. Throughout the film we see the haunting carry out through Skype calls, Facebook and iMessages and Youtube videos, with the purported ghost contacting each teenager and revealing their secrets.

The setup of the film is a clever one. While other films have dabbled in social media and the internet (Namely Chat Room and Antisocial, neither which pulled it off) this is the first I can find of a film that takes place entirely on a laptop screen. For that reason alone Unfriended will divide the audience reception, with some loving and others hating it. This was evident in the screening I was in, where there were quite a few walkouts from audience members. You will have to be alert, with the main character flicking between tabs and windows and messages appearing in the corner of the screen, it will be overpowering to a few.

Unfriended is also one of the few films I’ve watched that manages to do the internet justice. Other films that contain the internet usually do so poorly, with various knock off versions of Facebook and Twitter, yet Unfriended has it all, all the right sound effects, the messaging, everything, lending the film a great deal of realism and believability. The Skype calls in particular, become pixelated and de-sync, leading to a small bit of the uncanny to slip into the film at opportune moments, ramping up the feeling of uneasiness.

Scares are littered throughout the film, ranging from the “loud noise bang” jump scare, through to heavily stylised moments of body horror, and even a few moments of complete silence/Lynchian monotone notes to build up the tension. There are a couple of bait-and-switch tactics, with supposed build up of tension and it turning out to be nothing, yet sometimes the film pulls a fast one and switches again, giving the scares an irregular beat, making the audience stay on the edge of their seat.

However, the best part of the film is allowing us as the audience to see the main character type out replies on her computer, delete them and retype something different. This inclusion gives us a real insight to the character that we see from, leading to some jaw dropping moments of deceit and double crosses in the second half of the film, not giving us jump scare horror, but human horror as we see the true nature of the characters on screen revealed.

The film has its weaknesses. The overarching story is pretty predictable, and if you pay attention to certain hints you’ll be able to solve the whodunit mystery that the ghost plays with the teenagers. Not to get too pretentious, but Chekov’s Gun (both figuratively and literally) turns up at least twice in the film, possibly more, leading to story points that you can see coming from a mile off. The teenagers themselves are the usual horror stereotypes; the funny one, the promiscuous one, the dumb one, but once the ghost starts to turn them against each other we see a bit more of some semblance of more rounded characters, but by then the film has descended into gore and loud noises.

In conclusion, you will either love or hate Unfriended. While it made descend into clichés and annoying jump scares, its interesting take on the horror genre is enough to raise it above just being a stupid gimmick movie.

Score: 7/10 An interesting an solid entry in the resurgence of horror.