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Blair Witch: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Review

Blair Witch (2016) movie poster Blair Witch

Theatrical Release: September 16, 2016 / Running Time: 89 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Adam Wingard / Writer: Simon Barrett

Cast: James Allen McCune (James Donahue), Callie Hernandez (Lisa Arlington), Corbin Reid (Ashley Bennett), Brandon Scott (Peter Jones), Wes Robinson (Lane), Valorie Curry (Talia)

Buy Blair Witch from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD DVD Instant Video

There are few landmarks in horror film as significant as The Blair Witch Project. Produced for the meager sum of $60,000, the 1999 movie strategically billed itself as genuine found footage of aspiring documentarians who disappeared in the woods five years earlier.
Disarming audiences, including a number who weren't sure if the hook was genuine or conceit, the film grossed $140 million domestic and $250 million worldwide, setting an industry record for return on investment that is virtually untouchable. The closest anyone has come to duplicating its success was in 2009's similarly imaginative and super low budget next-generation found footage thriller Paranormal Activity.

Blair Witch's commercial success and wide-reaching impact seemed difficult to reproduce, but too potentially lucrative not to try. Artisan wasted little time -- a scant 15 months since the original opened -- before releasing Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, whose more ordinary $15 million budget was narrowly recouped at best with front-loaded takes of $26.4 M domestic and $47.8 M worldwide. That sequel seems to have instantly been forgotten and the franchise shelved while the original film's reputation evolved from fool-making hoax to uncommonly inventive homegrown horror.

A stick figure hanging from the trees can only mean one thing: the Blair Witch is back!

Having seen how well nostalgia has worked for movies like Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Artisan acquirer Lionsgate tried to tap into that market with Blair Witch, an untimely sequel whose production was shrouded in secrecy under the working title The Woods to reduce kneejerk Internet negativity. This new generation's Blair Witch unsurprisingly ignores Book of Shadows and serves as more or less a direct follow-up to the original hit. That one tagged along with three film students into the fabled forests of Burkittsville, Maryland in the fall of 1994. Set twenty years later, this one follows a group of six young people into the same Black Hills area and was pieced together from recovered SD cards and such.

Among the explorers is James Donahue (James Allen McCune), the improbably younger brother of the original trio's principal and lone female face Heather Donahue. He hopes to somehow find Heather alive in the woods and he's got friends with cameras prepared to document it all. A couple of fringe group members, Maryland locals, are devout believers in the Witch's legends. They soon ostracize themselves from the others with behavior intended to make believers out of all.

Genuine or not, some of the original film's hallmarks -- the stacks of stones, the stick figures in the trees -- resurface here. And so do the tensions and fears that cripple these young documentarians. Some lose their minds, convinced that days are passing without the sun rising. Others injure themselves, like the girl whose foot wound develops into an infected leg of the wince-inducing variety.

The technology has gotten better, but the novelty of found footage horror has been diminished considerably in the seventeen years since the original "Blair Witch Project" was released.

When you think about it, Blair Witch has more or less an impossible task to pull off: to pay homage to a well-known 17-year-old movie without simply remaking it. Working against it is the fact that the Paranormal Activity franchise sparked an entire subgenre of horror that saw any allure to the found footage format evaporate.
There's an improbable number of cameras running at unlikely times here, but of course no one is expecting anyone to mistake Blair Witch for genuine found footage, the way that the original film was. Even in just seventeen years, moviegoers have grown more cynical, quick to resist or find holes in anything that is popular enough to be noticed.

The creative duo of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (You're Next, The Guest and select segments of the V/H/S movies) do what they can to be true to the original while also keeping today's horror fans interested and on the edge of their seats. They have modest success without harnessing the powers of imagination and the unseen anywhere to the extent that made the original film so uniquely frightening. Blair Witch isn't a respected enough franchise for there to be any risk of sullying a sacred brand, but the title also proved to have little drawing power.

Almost certainly more tickets were sold than they would have been for generic sounding The Woods, but not nearly enough were sold to revive this as an active horror franchise. While the $20.8 million domestic and $45 M worldwide grosses were absolutely enough to generate profit from the modest $5 million budget, the domestic gross was less than what the measly Book of Shadows earned back in 2000, even ignoring inflation.

Hoping to attract some of those gift cards burning holes in pockets, Lionsgate brought Blair Witch to stores on the first Tuesday of 2017 in the loaded Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack reviewed here.

Blair Witch (2016): Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: Dolby Atmos/TrueHD 7.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Late Night Viewing Optimized, Descriptive Video Service)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish, Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Extras Not Subtitled; Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: January 3, 2017
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9 & BD-50)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on standalone DVD ($29.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Any glitches in Blair Witch's Blu-ray presentation are by design. The 1.85:1 picture is sometimes jerky and often meant to look like consumer video rather than professional. But the theatrical look is upheld without any issue. The 7.1 Dolby Atmos (TrueHD where not compatible) mix is especially effective, supplying sounds from every direction to enhance the horror (to modest effect).

Behind-the-scenes footage from "Neverending Night" reveals there was more than just the character shooting the movie. The Comic-Con filmmaker panel after the screening where the film's real title and nature were revealed is preserved in the documentary.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's extras begin with an audio commentary by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. Recorded two weeks after the film's theatrical opening, the two repeatedly acknowledge the box office disappointment,
critical disdain, and public dislike, setting the tone for an earnest and slightly apologetic/defeated discussion. They're clearly upset to be talking about ideas for sequels they'll never get to make.

On the video side, we begin with "Neverending Night: The Making of Blair Witch", an epic six-part making-of documentary that runs longer than the feature attraction at 1 hour, 46 minutes, and 38 seconds. Just the kind of thing this movie and its fans were clamoring for? The cast recall not knowing what they were auditioning for. There is also information on the manufactured video glitches and the organic "score" generated from electronic devices, and we also get the post-screening panel at Comic-Con where the film's true nature was revealed to conventioners' shock. It's a really comprehensive companion to a film you wouldn't expect to elicit such a thing.

Director Adam Wingard and production designer Tom Hammock show you around the "House of Horrors." The black and gray main menu animates the branches from the poster/cover art.

Finally, there is "House of Horrors: Exploring the Set" (15:50) in which Wingard and production designer Tom Hammock take us on a tour of the finale's set and talk about
the aesthetic choices made and how they stay true to the location from the original film.

The DVD includes the commentary and "House of Horrors", but not the giant documentary. This isn't a case of Lionsgate wanting people to buy Blu-ray instead of DVD as the dual-layered disc is filled to capacity without squeezing on the feature-length companion.

The discs open with a new trailer for the original Blair Witch Project, 31, The Witch, Knock Knock and The Monster. "Also from Lionsgate" repeats the same five. We don't get trailers for either "The Woods" or Blair Witch.

The scored main menu sluggishly animates branches in a black and gray variation of the cover art.

The two nearly-identical, predominantly red full-color discs share a slipcovered eco-friendly keepcase with a Digital HD insert.

A couple of Blair Witch believers resurface in the woods of Burkitsville, Maryland in 2016's "Blair Witch."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

You can't fault Blair Witch for disregarding or betraying the modern horror classic it sequelizes, but nor can you credit it for finding a reason to exist or a way to inject life into the fatigued found footage format. That the movie simultaneously succeeds and fails in this fashion suggests it was a hopeless undertaking from the start.

With a fine feature presentation, a stunningly in-depth making-of documentary, and a distinctive audio commentary, Lionsgate's Blu-ray combo pack leaves positively nothing to be desired. Other than a movie you'll want to see more than one time, that is.

Buy Blair Witch from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD / DVD / Instant Video

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Reviewed January 15, 2017.



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