Nov 11, 2012


In this column, movies with less-than-stellar reputations are fairly and objectively defended. Full disclaimer establishes that said movies aren’t perfect, and aren’t close to being such, but contain an undeniable amount of worth that begs you for a second chance. Films chosen are based on their general reception by both critics and audiences, more often than not falling into the negative. Every film, no matter how dismal, has at least one good quality. As they say, it ain’t that bad. 

Spoilers abound. 

A sequel to The Blair Witch Project was probably doomed from the start, no matter what direction was attempted.

A direct-direct sequel? What, it turns out – oops – Heather, Michael, and Josh survived their encounter and fled that awful Parr house back into the woods for more dark-screaming?

No thanks.

Perhaps a group of investigators set out after having located the recently unearthed footage and try to find traces of the missing kids, this time bringing along their own camera crew?

Perhaps if the first Blair Witch had been released after Paranormal Activity, which had proven you could go back to the same well using the same schtick and find success, then maybe that would’ve happened.

But it didn’t.

Blair Witch’s success at the box office rang the dinner bell for an inevitable sequel, and so franchise owner then-Artisan Entertainment became intrigued by a pitch that would’ve made the first movie just that: a movie.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 takes place in an environment where The Blair Witch Project is recognized as the fictional narrative piece of pop culture phenomenon it legitimately was when it was released back in 1999. It follows a group of people so obsessed with the movie that they set out on some kind of Blair Witch Weekend Extravaganza to immerse themselves in everything that made them total suckers for the movie.

I give Artisan and director Joe Berlinger heaps of credit for trying it this way. You have to admit, it’s a pretty ballsy move by putting all your eggs in the basket of “you know that movie you love and which made the world come out in droves to see it? Turns out we’re retconning it all and having it be just a movie.” And it was even ballsier in picking documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy; Brother's Keeper) to take the helm of his first (and so far, only) feature film.

The screenplay by Berlinger and co-writer Dick Beebee (the House on Haunted Hill remake, “Tales from the Crypt”) is actually not just some kind of exploitative rehash of familiar horror tropes (or at least wasn’t meant to be), but was actually about our dependence on pop culture and the power of mass hysteria. All of the characters come from completely different walks of life – a former patient of a mental institution, an unstable weirdo (and hot) Goth, a married team of writers researching for a book, and a new age Wiccan out to dispel the notion that all witches are evil bitches – and yet they have all ended up in the same place, and it was their obsession and/or infatuation with The Blair Witch Project that led them there.

The best part of the film belongs to the opening five minutes (not including the terrible credit sequence), which is a compilation of news reports and entertainment talk shows discussing the explosive reaction to The Blair Witch Project – from MTV's Kurt Loder (remember him?) to Jay Leno – which is intermingled with interviews of “real” Burkittsville residents who discuss their love/hate relationship with the film. It’s an incredibly clever and intelligent opening to a film that is trying to tell its audience right off the bat, “We’re trying something different.”

Obviously, though it's shot traditionally, there still needed to be that amateur video aesthetic that made Blair Witch so successful and effective. And so elements of video captured by our cast becomes the catalyst for the film's conclusion. Because what the video shows them doing does not at all match up with what they're absolutely sure happened, according to their own memories. The things they experienced – and believed to be the real truth – are easily shattered when played on a computer screen in front of them. And what the video shows is them committing murder, participating in orgies, and offering sacrifices to the "real" Elly Kedward. But we, the audience, never saw these things. We saw a bunch of white kids drinking copious amounts of alcohol and each discussing his/her own ties to The Blair Witch Project. They were obnoxious and antagonistic and sometimes irritating, but never murderous. So how was it this footage was captured? Are we, the audience, being lied to? And if so, who are the perpetrators? The kids? The witch? Our own eyes? The true mystery lies in a statement made by Jeff, the leader of the Blair Witch Hunt, when he says "Video never lies. Film does, but video never lies." Work that around your noggin any way you see fit.

Unfortunately what was to be a more highbrow and classy affair was corrupted by Artisan Entertainment, who demanded that corny gore and Marilyn Manson complement the opening credits. Blair Witch 2 became a real Frankenstein affair, and Berlinger’s commentary on the DVD is quick to point out which scenes he was forced to include in order to appeal to a more broad (read: stupid) base.

In some regards, I am the lone cheerleader, and unendingly optimistic. But in others, don’t worry – I’m not delusional. For instance, I recognize that the acting is pretty atrocious. Though some members of the cast went on to other notable things (Erica Leehrsen did 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wrong Turn 2; Jeffrey Donovan ended up with "Burn Notice"; Kim Diamond became Spike Lee’s muse), there is no short supply of horrendous acting and/or dialogue.

For instance:

“Witch bitch!”

“The witch…kills…children!”

"Fucking witch!"


(But let it not be said bad acting has killed a horror movie. Mia Farrow’s flat and corny performance in Rosemary’s Baby didn’t deter its then-and-now legendary reputation, and Heather Langenkamp didn’t exactly graduate from the actor’s studio before taking on A Nightmare on Elm Street.)


Lanny Flaherty as Sheriff Cravens gives the best performance…ever.

In the movie’s final act, in which reality (or is it?) is slowly meshing with fiction, there are some nice nods to the first film, such as the very greasy Rustin Parr-looking repairman saying, “I’m finished now,” after fixing a soda machine (although they did blow the line they were trying to homage, which was actually “I’m finally finished”). Additionally, his assortment of tools, when piled together, depict the infamous stick figure that became synonymous with the first film.

The resurrection (forgive the pun) of the Burkittsville Seven children murdered by Parr make several appearances as ghosts, and while the idea of including them is nice, and even appropriate, their make-up is beyond pitiful, and comes off like an elementary school Halloween parade. There are also nods to Kyle Brody (the 8th and only surviving victim of Rustin Parr) and Eileen Treacle, who was allegedly drowned by the witch in a very shallow creek. While these inclusions are clever, it also adds an additional layer in that, yes, the first Blair Witch was just a movie, but all of the events discussed in the film – Rustin Parr, the seven murdered kids, etc. – all allegedly happened. So what we're dealing with is a sequel to a movie that calls it just a movie, but which is based on a "real" history that was completely fabricated for said first movie. Still with me?

Carter Burwell turns in a clever and nature-driven score, using a combination of water and stones to create a patchwork of very woodsy-sounding themes.

Humor is a welcome presence from time to time, normally courtesy of Jeffrey Donovan, and I do also love that “Heather Donohue/light bulb” joke, where the punch line is screaming. (I have an affinity for very stupid jokes.)

As far as horror sequels go, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 gets a bad rap. It’s not as abhorrent as, say, The Exorcist 2, but it’s also not held up to legendary status (and fairly so). It’s big on ideas and nearly-but-not-quite ruined by a meddlesome studio throwing shit at the horror wall to see what sticks. Berlinger has a keen eye, and portions of the screenplay are clever and intelligent. I'd love to somehow see the original director's cut of this – I have a feeling it didn't include owl eating.

Because we'll never really know what Book of Shadows was originally meant to look like before all the studio tampering, it's hard to assign the appropriate level of blame to director Joe Berlinger. The end result is a somewhat irritating hodgepodge of ideas that, while based on an interesting concept, is ultimately dampened by lowest common denominator-type shock value, awful teen rock'n'roll (Nickelback yay!) and the typical amount of violence usually reserved for Friday the 13th. A shame, since the first Blair Witch's level of violence amounted to a couple of red squishy things wrapped in a shirt – and yet it still managed to be a box office and critical juggernaut – so why Artisan felt the need to cram in generic horror blood-n-guts is something we'll never really know.

A really great idea exists at the core of Book of Shadows, and if you can let the film be and examine it with a less discerning eye, sometimes you can catch glimpses of the director's original vision.

I urge you to revisit this particular fright flick. You might just be surprised.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I like this sequel quite a bit and believe, as you do, that it gets a bad rap.