No movie has ever had such an easy bar to clear as director Adam Wingard and and screenwriter Simon Barrett's Blair Witch: be better than 2000's stupefyingly awful Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, unrelentingly terrible and trashy even by the standards of horror sequels. At the same time, Blair Witch had another bar to clear, almost as impossible as that first one was mindless: do something that justifies creating a sequel, 17 years later, to the 1999 indie film sensation The Blair Witch Project. The original is a still-divisive work that divides viewers into the camps of "an outstanding one-off masterpiece, don't you dare touch it" and "nauseating, dimwitted garbage, why would you ever want another one?" I don't suppose I can imagine a film that would make either of those groups happy, let alone both of them, and if I could, it would look nothing like Blair Witch, a wholly disposable movie that largely resembles all of the other first-person camera movies of the last several years in its strengths, which are more or less equally balanced by its flagrant weaknesses.

Though I am happy to have the world's first movie trilogy about which, if all you knew about the films was their respective titles, you'd probably assume they came out in exactly the reverse order as really happened.

Unlike Book of Shadows, a bold attempt at meta-commentary that falls flat on its ass within the first ten minutes and never gets back up, Blair Witch plays things largely safe: it's a direct, in-universe sequel to the original movie. And like so many recent sequels made after the span of many years, it comes rather damn close to erasing whatever line exists between "sequel" and "remake", copying most of the same beats as The Blair Witch Project in the same order, though by no means are all of those beats played in the same way. At any rate, here's what we have: first, the promise from a very bland title card in emotionless sans-serif font that a group of filmmakers went missing in the forest outside of Burkittsville, Maryland in 2014, and what we're watching is a selection of footage edited into a coherent form from the memory cards that were all that was found of them. And perhaps I am a miserable old-media purist, but a cache of tapes found hidden in the woods somehow feels more physically meaningful than a pile of memory cards.

So in 2014, what happened is that James Donahue (James Allen McCune) has just gotten the first lead, after years of searching, as to what might have happened to his sister. His sister being none other than Heather Donahue, one of three documentary filmmakers who went missing in 1994, when James was just 4 years old. Footage of what appears to be Heather, if you pay very close attention to just a couple of frames, has surfaced online, and James has gotten in contact with the Burkittsville native who found it. For reasons that the film pushes through fast enough that it's not too hard to buy into the conceit, James has deigned to let one of his friends, Lisa (Callie Hernandez) film a documentary about his quest to find Heather, and our first footage comes as she rigs him and herself with earpiece cameras with built-in GPS transmitters. Also along for the ride, and to provide extra sources of footage, are James's other friends, Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid). In Burkittsville, they meet up with local Blair Witch hunters Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), each equipped with their own cameras, much junkier and lower-resolution than Lisa's HD DSLR, and over everybody's misgivings, and Peter's outright objection, they force their way into the expedition, in exchange for showing James where the possible footage of Heather was found.

If you're counting, that's already seven different cameras, and at least two more will show up before too long. One of these is a drone, which, I want to be absolutely clear and fair, makes perfect sense. Lisa is obviously well-heeled - her wide assortment of photographic equipment fills a large table - and I can't imagine why someone who could take a drone on this kind of shoot wouldn't want to. I want to be equally clear that Wingard and Barrett can go fuck themselves. A drone belongs in a Blair Witch picture like an anaconda belongs in a bubble bath.

There are, at this point, almost as many reasons to hate first-person camera "found footage" movies as there are dead teenagers in the forest, but there's something uniquely horrible about movies that position themselves within that form while doing everything in their power to avoid having to deal with what that entails. The very best movies in the style - The Blair Witch Project, [REC] - gain most of their power from the locked-in limitation of having just one perspective, which more often than not leaves the audience feeling out of control and helpless. The more cameras you add, the more it becomes nothing but a conventionally-shot movie with a lazy excuse for bad cinematography built right in. At least Blair Witch looks nicer than average, with director of photography Robby Baumgartner doing what he can to light the nighttime woods in a manner that's sufficiently threatening and atmospheric without feeling fake, but the found footage conceit is treated with more perfunctory contempt here than in any movie this side of Chronicle.

If this all implies that, title notwithstanding, Blair Witch is just another damn found footage horror movie, something like a segment from one of those dreary V/H/S anthologies accidentally blasted up to 89 minutes, then I have correctly done my job as a critic. There's really nothing here that the genre faithful haven't seen before: even setting aside the constant borrowing from The Blair Witch Project itself, the film generates most its scares in almost exactly the same way that films of this sort tend to. It generates them very well! I don't want to take that away from Wingard's direction, which oscillates effectively between moments of hectic panic and moments of tense, watchful waiting. It's not an especially artful way: mostly, Blair Witch generates terror through sheer overwhelming stimulation, correctly assuming that enough incoherent noise and dizzying, stomach-churning cinematography will get the audience wired enough that anything would seem pretty horrifying. Still, the film's last 20 minutes or so are legitimately nerve-shredding, leaving me as desperately keyed up as any horror film has in a couple of years, though I am sorry to report that the film's spell has already dissipated by the time the end credits are done rolling.

Prior to the climax, though, Blair Witch is boilerplate found footage tedium: there's very little to distinguish the characters, outside of the handful of well-placed shots to silently indicate that Peter (who is African-American) particularly distrusts Lane (who has a Confederate flag on his living room wall) for racially-motivated reasons, and this ads a layer of interest that carries on much longer than it maybe should. Otherwise, it's six characters screaming at each other in the woods, occasionally distracted by the script's unfortunate decision to add some kind of mysterious time dilation to the action and thus complicate the Blair Witch mythology in ways that it would have been better not to. In fact, the whole of Blair Witch feels a bit like fan fiction: elaborating on details of the original that most people probably don't remember or never noticed, and often not doing so in a way that makes any real sense within the context of this film by itself. Barrett's attempt to pay homage to moments in the original by re-conceiving its primary ingredients is nifty enough, if you're familiar with the first film, but the payoff is minimal. And in the case of a traditional Blair Witch Stick Totem that has been blown up to the size of one of those novelty giant teddy bears you can win at the county fair, it's openly goofy.

Basically, the thing is just a lot of generic fluff attached to a brand name that was irreparably damaged in 2000, and was already hated by as many people as loved it. Undoubtedly, by the standards of the 2010s found footage horror film, Blair Witch is in the top half; the top third even! But there's damning with faint praise, and there's being a passive-aggressive asshole, and given the state of the genre here in 2016 "it's good, for found footage" is too mean even for me to say it without a twinge of guilt.