Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
Reviewed in October 2000
Director: Joe Berlinger. Cast: Jeff Donovan, Kim Director, Erica Leerhsen, Tristen Skyler, Steven Barker Turner. Screenplay: Dick Beebe and Joe Berlinger.
The premise of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is that five over-zealous fans of the original Blair Witch Project camp out for a night in the now-notorious Black Hills outside Burkittsville, Maryland, and wake up the following morning to find their video equipment demolished, their papers shredded, and the landscape physically altered; all that has survived are a few tapes from the cameras they'd set up to document any weird goings-on. Worse, as if from a spell or out-of-body experience, the two men and three women in the party have no memory of having fallen asleep, or of the preceding night's events. As the press materials and official write-ups of the film keep repeating, the protagonists "can't account for five hours of their lives."
My predicament is only slightly less frustrating: I can't account for 90 minutes of my life. The last thing I remember is handing $6 to a box-office worker who didn't tell me, or else didn't know, that I was headed for the worst high-profile horror sequel since Exorcist 2: The Heretic. Surprisingly, I feel almost no anger at the complete failure of this movie on every level, even though such a dismal, careless follow-up to a film I genuinely admire would normally get my goat. In fact, I almost enjoyed Blair Witch 2, utterly despite itself, because it is the rare film that seems earnesty unaware of its own grandiloquent awfulness. We're talking about a Showgirls-level train-wreck, awful in bold, unpredictable ways, which at least makes the film, in its own degraded way, much easier to sit through than a dog like Runaway Bride, whose every wrong step can be foreseen from the first deadening moments.
In fact, the opening of Book of Shadowswhich, as near as I can tell, features neither the presence of nor any reference to a "book of shadows"is easily its cleverest sequence. A pre-credits pastiche of news clips documents both the world's enthusiastic response to the first film and the most bizarre manifestation of that popularity: the pilgrimmage of scores of fans and believers, many of them persuaded that the faux-documentary was so not faux, to the notably irate town of Burkittsville. Most of the town's 200 citizens fume about the indifference with which the original filmmakers offered up Burkittsville as a latter-day Salem, where intrusive, misguided tourists badger any old lady on the street for her witch-related "memories." Frankly, if I were from Burkittsville, I'd be much angrier about the new film: at least in the former case they were exploited by a movie that worked.
I'll set up the exposition infinitely more quickly than the movie does by providing a quick thumbnail of the five strangers who comprise the ill-fated camping party: Jeff, a Burkittsville resident and recent sanitorium inhabitant who has just launched a brand new "tour" designed to hit all the "hot spots" from Coffin Rock to the ruined house where Heather Donahue's footage was found; Tristen and Stephen, a squeaky-clean couple whose book analyzing the Blair Witch phenomenon should arrive at the same time as the baby, which Tristen doesn't want to keep; Erica, a Wiccan angered that the film trivialized her beliefs but excited to commune with the newly-conjured spirits in the woods; and Kim, a Siouxsie Sioux lookalike who's mostly along for the ride because she "thought the movie was cool."
Perhaps part of the reason Book of Shadows takes so long introducing its characters is that it hasn't thought of anything else to do with them. Besides a brief run-in with a competing tour-group, the nocturnal camp-out features no more interesting event thanget this!the five twentysomethings getting drunk and smoking dope. And these folks want to know why they can't remember anything the next morning? The only question raised in my mind by the first half-hour of Book of Shadows was, How come a house that had with two floors and a basement in 1994 is suddenly just a stone foundation with a huge oak planted in the middle? (As it turns out, we're supposed to be thrown off by the tree, but the razing of Heather and Mike's final resting place remains a mystery. Unless I was dozing.)
The final hour of this film, after the dazed quintet leave their campsite and collect in the "home" Jeff has made for himself in an abandoned broom factory, is where all the scary stuff happens. For my part, I was less terrified by the scenes or events than by the editing job, which seems to have been performed with a Neanderthal's stone tool. Though the anticipated chills never truly frighten us, it's not because we see them coming; the stranger, giddier reason is that the chills are so misconceived, so disorganized, and so arbitrary that we couldn't possibly see them coming. It's a wonder that director Joe Berlinger and co-scripter Dick Beebe thought of them to begin with. Here's an example: Kim, addressing Jeff from behind, is astonished to see him turn and suddenly transform into a dead body being zapped by an electric chair. She blinks in fright (!), and Jeff is back to normal. Kim puts her head down in that very spot and takes a nap. What do you say about a "scare" like that? A film character who can slumber off that quickly is sure-fire proof that the audience is slumbering, too.
I guess I would have been miffed if I'd read any precise details about the concluding chapters before I'd seen it, i.e., before I knew I had nothing to be excited about. Since all the pleasure associated with Book of Shadows lies in the anticipation, I'll stay mum about what I'm sure the filmmakers would call the "payoffs." It's enough to say that, unlike The Blair Witch Project, which nervily scared us by keeping its threats out of sight, Blair Witch 2 coughs up every gory and ghostly sight it can think of and hopes that its own jumblednessour own uncertainty about what's "real," and how each shot relates to the otherswill create suspense. However, as in David Fincher's The Game, the film makes abundantly clear that we have no chance of grasping its mysteries until it confesses them, inevitably an eleventh-hour event. There's no percentage in guessing; we can only wait out our bewilderment at a movie that doesn't care to include us.
At least The Game partly compensated for its distant, authoritarian structure with some stirring images and dazzling sets. Book of Shadows has no parallel pleasures; the factory is a garish, architecturally confusing mess, and the actors are, to be kind, helpless with no script to act. Their attempts to breathe life into this stiff finally generate some Ed Wood-caliber anti-classics, which frequently involve a woman shaking or spinning her body for no discernible reason. Probably my favorite moment occurred when Jeff, breathlessly poring over a videotape of the "lost" evening, catches a glimpse of something cryptic and exclaims to the others that he'll try to "see if he can move the film back and recapture the image!" When I do that, I call it hitting the Rewind button . . . but it usually doesn't scare anyone who's watching. So, in that sense, I guess it's similar.
Director Berlinger, making his first venture into fiction films, was previously celebrated as half of the duo behind the tantalizing documentaries Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. While I admire those non-fiction works, both of them, I think, eventually abandon their own most fascinating moral questions and rely on the elaborate, inherent luridness of their true-crime storylines to propel them along. (We increasingly wonder "Did he/they do it?" with fewer questions about why, or what either answer would mean.) The only truly disconcerting effect of Blair Witch 2, then, is the further evidence it provides that Joe Berlinger may not be a sophisticated, intelligent truth-seeker, but rather just another guy with a camera who gets turned on by gruesome violence and weird sex. No one, it seems to me, who is genuinely interested in ethically resonant art, or wary of cheap shock gimmicks, could make a movie in which Goth-girls chew on live owls, ketchup explodes from plasticine "corpses," and the buff-ish lead actor shows his bum in the final five minutes in a desperate plea to snap our eyes back open. Even the documentaries' protective empathy for people whose difference is mistaken for guilt or insanity flies out the window in Book of Shadows; when Berlinger gets desperate for a fright, he trots out some of Erica's freaky Wicca trinkets or clips from Jeff's asylum days.
As the current, profitable rerelease of The Exorcist proves, inspired horror films will survive the dopey, exploitative sequels that sprout up in their wake. In the meantime, a climactic event in Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 involves a murder suspect being confronted with a security-cam image of her crime, to which she protests, "I didn't do that!" I can easily imagine Joe Berlinger and his vacuous cast sitting in theaters and making similar denials. Would that supernatural forces had been moved to destroy their equipment. F