“Blair Witch” and the value of originality

We, as a movie-going and reviewing society, sure complain about remakes a lot. Let’s extend that to reboots, retreads, requels and reimaginings, for that matter. Any of those tags signal the first strike for a film before given a chance to make its case for its own existence — but why?

Clinging to the concept of originality ignores the inherent derivativeness of film in general. Criticizing a remake because it’s a remake is drawing a line in the sand — forgiving film in general while harping on the seemingly cynical cash-grabby studios that churn out these films like a factory in China pops out new iPhones.

Of course that’s how most movies we see on the big screen are made, but we can stomach it when it’s at least an original idea, right? Or perhaps not; maybe independent film is the only way to circumvent this repetition completely and offer the breath of fresh air so many crave.

Here’s how this relates to “Blair Witch,” a sequel to the iconic 1999 film “The Blair Witch Project.” Produced on a shoestring budget of $5 million, the plot centers on the brother (James) of the protagonist of the original film (Heather) who believes his sister is still out in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland.

You know how this one is going to go. James, along with three friends, head out into the woods with the intention of making a documentary while he looks to find closure for his sister’s disappearance. Then the haunting ensues.

The formula isn’t all that complicated: kids go into woods, hear weird stuff, get inexplicably lost, hear more weird stuff and slowly but surely start to disappear as the stakes grow higher and higher. This is practically the same formula used by “The Blair Witch Project,” and it wouldn’t be totally unfair to say “Blair Witch” is more of a remake than a sequel.

You don’t need to have seen the original film to “get” the sequel and the formula is so familiar that it could most charitably be called an homage to its predecessor. Here’s where it gets interesting though: “Blair Witch” is a better movie than the one that precedes it. That’s where originality comes into play.

If you follow me on Letterboxd, you might know I rated “The Blair Witch Project” 4.5/5 stars while “Blair Witch” got 3.5/5. So what gives? Originality does matter. Films aren’t viewed in a vacuum and context absolutely matters for all things, including where a film came from.

That’s not to say a sequel can’t be better than the original in a series — it absolutely can. From “Aliens” to “The Godfather 2," there’s a long list of sequels that outperformed its predecessor. The problem with “Blair Witch” is that it doesn’t so much add to “The Blair Witch Project” as it improves on an existing formula.

The characters are more interesting, the direction better, the scares more frequent and more effective and the 90 minutes more exhilarating. But improving the recipe of a cake recipe isn’t as impressive as coming up with the recipe to begin with (within reason, of course).

“Blair Witch” is a very good movie — yes, it’s a low-risk gamble by a studio that wants to reintroduce the series to a new audience, but it’s done so well that it shouldn’t be punished too severely for it. This isn’t the uber-original breath of fresh air that “The Blair Witch Project” was, but “Blair Witch” is a damn good movie and that counts, too.