Blair Witch (2016)

★★

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Blair Witch PosterDirector: Adam Wingard

Release Date: 15th September, 2016 (UK); 16th September, 2016 (US)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Callie Hernandez, James Allen McCune, Valorie Curry

Netflix, for all of its cultural zeitgeist curating — yes, Stranger Things is wonderful and, yes, we should ramble on about it forever (or at least until the next new series hits in a few weeks) — is at its best when fulfilling the promise of its roots. In other words, when it functions as a library of untapped gems. I watched one of those gems a few weeks ago, a found footage film with a science fiction setting and horror proclivities, and a good one at that. Aside from strong performances and an increasingly eerie atmosphere, Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report champions a found footage style that minimises the head-spinning amateur wobbliness we often have to endure, but which also maintains the unsettling sense of privacy invasion that found footage, at its best, should enact. Europa Report, released in 2013, struggled to find a theatrical audience.

Yet, here we are. Another found footage horror release towing the subgenre line, another mainstream commodity (though surprisingly not another box office victory). Filmmaking team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have cultivated, certainly in my eyes, an admirable reputation for undercutting genre tropes and flavouring their films with semi-satire. You’re Next isn’t perfect but it does throw bombs at horror clichés with amusing success. Even better, The Guest upholds taut thriller tendencies as it encourages us to revel in the villainy of its not-so-cookie-cutter lead. Therefore it is odd that Blair Witch, the duo’s newest offering, often falls so far by the witty, intelligent wayside.

We’ll start with the story: a group of nice-looking adventurers with age on their side travelling somewhere they shouldn’t because they reckon it is a good idea when everyone sat in the screening room and standing in the foyer knows it isn’t. The GallowsAs Above, So Below. Area 51. That sort of thing. Blair Witch sees the brother of The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue head to the forests of Maryland in search of his missing sister whom he reckons is still alive. James (James Allen McCune) is joined by documentarian pal Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid).

The film revisits the final moments of The Blair Witch Project at the beginning, instantly alerting us to the grainy aesthetic of the original horror; in fact, one of this instalment’s redeeming features is its occasional use of an old camcorder to document events, a visual reminder of what came before. Elsewhere, the film uses up-to-date high-definition technology including earpieces embedded with mini cameras and a drone to shoot from above (the drone is never used to its full potential, barely fluttering above the forest foliage). Very little happens for half an hour, the characters merely learning how to work their equipment before heading to their destination. Although this isn’t time spent particularly interestingly, these minutes do at least paint those on-screen in a fairly genial light. James and Lisa are particularly amiable, neither pushy nor arrogant, both a far cry from genre caricatures.

It’s not until we the reach the Burkittsville creep-land that things begin to take a turn for the haphazard. The group arrange to meet with a couple wielding knowledge of the area in the hope that they will lead them to their desired location and then depart. But of course Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), indiscreetly hiding their collective kookiness, want to stick around as part of the deal. Because every scary excursion has to accommodate someone (or some people in this instance) willing to spout his/her supernatural inclinations at every opportunity. I should also note that by this point we’ve already heard one member of the party poke fun at the idea Heather is still alive. And shortly thereafter, another member of the party injures her foot. Which effectively means no running from The Bad Stuff.

There are spooky campfire tales, noises in the night, Wicker-Man-esque stick symbols, and folks wandering off alone. The inclusion of so many blatant tropes would be fine if the film then countered with either some brazen self-awareness (like in You’re Next), or at the very least a handful of genuine scares. But it’s not scary, in part because the camera contorts too violently in moments of would-be tension, disorientating us — yes — but never affording us the chance to engage with or understand what is happening on-screen. And I don’t think there is an awful lot of self-aware hilarity going on either. When the proverbial hits the fan, Lisa et al. appear much too freaked out for any of streaks of amusement to stick. I suppose the actors do offer the infrequent helping of light relief (Scott’s reaction to an infected cut), but in truth there is nothing for us to be momentarily relieved from.

The best scene actually involves said cut and, you guessed it, an unhealthy serving of oozetastic body-horror. Kudos to the prop masters and makeup artists for provoking legitimate yelps of disgust (at least that’s how the scene played with most of the audience in my screening). Elsewhere, a tree-climbing sequence places Foley workers in the foreground, branches creaking and murmuring to delightful effect, part of an OTT noise-fest that would make Toby Jones proud.

As the story advances, Blair Witch adopts more of a monster movie mantra, distinguishing itself from the paranormal tensions of its predecessor. We see glimpses of the creature, removing the disconcerting veil of uncertainty that covered the original and boosted its chilling potential. The ingredients fail to click, or maybe they just aren’t strong enough. Any potshotting nods, instances where the filmmakers look to knowingly nudge their well-versed audience, translate poorly. Besides, the film’s overabundant use of familiar genre commands would almost certainly render satirical swipes moot (see Deadpool). Wingard and Barrett will doubtless be back with something devilishly sweeter. This one just irks because it is a sequel to the prototypical found footage horror, the one that reinvented the game for better or worse, and it is timidly generic.

Blair Witch - Valorie Curry

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

The Guest (2014)

★★★★

The Guest PosterDirector: Adam Wingard

Release Date: September 5th, 2014 (UK); September 17th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Thriller

Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Munroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelly

Hot on the heels of their inverted slasher jaunt You’re Next, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett are back with another bold outing. The Guest moves along purposefully, fuelled by a pulpy beat that adds to its wholesale allure. In some ways it’s one of those that is difficult to consume in a single sitting — there are so many astutely placed kinks to pick out and admire.

Yet, the story is simple. A generally agreeable tale that would undoubtedly flounder in lesser hands. Wingard and Barrett are too committed to let matters evade them and The Guest thrives as a result.

As she opens the door to a stranger whom we later come to know as David (Dan Stevens), mother Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelly) is still wiping from her face the fresh and presumably frequent tears brought on by the thought of her son’s death in Afghanistan. David claims to be the deceased soldier’s squad mate, having stopped by in order to uphold a promise and offer his condolences. His presence immediately fills a gap and the popular David finds himself around for the long haul. Only, something about the visitor doesn’t sit correctly with daughter Anna (Maika Munroe).

It’s obvious that the director cherishes each and every frame afforded to him as the screen is relentlessly tinged with meaning and inquisition. We’re gripped from the get-go, unable to shake of the taut dinner table ambience or Dan Stevens’ malice-sprinkled gaze. The Guest isn’t a conventional thriller because it doesn’t rely on snappy movements or authoritative language. There is a lot of weapon speech (“I’m a soldier, man. I like guns,” David reassures us) but the tension here lies almost universally upon the brow of the lead actor.

The Downton Abbey star is far from lord-like on this occasion, though Stevens does retain a resolute posture, unmoved and unflinching. When we first meet him he manifests as a fairly ordinary guy, a former soldier about to make his way back into society. A peculiar glance is at first distracting, and then nerve-jangling. Stevens gives off an impression of suppressed power; his character is always in control and, to make matters worse, the Stevenson family are completely unaware. They are caught in a charisma spell. So are we.

Frankly, the actor is brilliant, his simple delivery layered with complex volume and mysterious motives. It’s almost as if Barrett penned the character with Stevens in mind. Superseding said performance is the actor’s ability to consistently engage the viewer, to make us like him even though we are unequivocally aware that the chap before us is a dodgy guy. His iffiness pours from every crevice and, somehow, we cannot help but egg David on. This element centres the film and effectively pulls the various pieces together. Part thriller, part mystery, part character study, an immediate need to like David infects proceedings with a darkly comedic underbelly.

It’s dark. It’s devious. It’s horrible. And it’s bloody delightful. As Robby Baumgartner focuses his camera on David, carefully edging closer into his nasty glare, we become the devil on the wanderer’s shoulder and indulge in helpings of fun as a result. Wingard knows he is appeasing the genre audience every step of the way. The director has history, rewriting the pillars of horror to accommodate something different in You’re Next, and this mantra is once again capitalised upon here.

The other performances are somewhat overshadowed by the excellence of the lead actor, but it is worth singling out newcomer Maika Munroe’s work as the entranced-cum-anxious daughter. Anna could very easily have stumbled over into annoying territory, but Munroe just about reigns in the mood swings and does enough positive rallying to see her through unscathed. Sheila Kelly’s performance as devastated mother Laura is also commendable. We believe in her plight to keep David around, though misguided due to the loss of her son, and we can therefore sympathise rather than judge. In between moments of ill-advised glee, we ultimately care about the family.

The sheer abundance of solid work done beforehand enables us to forgive the overly ironic haunted maze finale, and instead pass it off as a humorously cheesy side order. Everything else is so good. If such an anomaly exists in our ever diverging cinematic universe, The Guest is intelligent popcorn entertainment. And if such an anomaly exists, Adam Wingard might be on his way to mastering it.

The Guest - Dan Stevens

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Picturehouse