The original Blair Witch Project was more of a stunt than a movie – a very effective stunt for its many admirers, who pushed the box office take of the micro-budgeted indie into the stratosphere. By now, everyone knows the premise: a group of documentary filmmakers vanish in the woods while investigating paranormal activity, leaving only their footage behind. As gimmicks go, it was a good one, if not as startlingly original as press reports of the time made it out to be (it was preceded by an eerily similar mockumentary, The Last Broadcast). In its execution, however, it played more like an extended episode of MTV’s The Real World, with its twentysomething protagonists screaming at each other in an unvarying tone for much of the running time. Strangely enough, this irritating aspect of The Blair Witch Project is one of the few elements to make its way intact to the new train wreck of a sequel, Book of Shadows. A jaw-dropping calamity of staggering ineptitude, Blair Witch 2 is likely to grind Artisan’s nascent franchise to a screeching halt.
It didn’t have to be this way. For the sequel, the creators of the first movie have handed the directorial reigns to Joe Berlinger, best known for the pair of muckraking documentaries on the Robin Hood Hills murders he made with Bruce Sinofsky, Paradise Lost and Revelations. With co-screenwriter Dick Beebe, Berlinger has cooked up a scenario that would seem right up his alley. The sequel begins by acknowledging that The Blair Witch Project was only a movie. What follows, however, is purported to be a fictionalized version of real events that occurred following the film’s release.
The backwoods town of Burkittsville, Maryland is under siege by rabid fans of the movie, some of whom are convinced that the events it depicted really happened. A young couple researching a book on the phenomenon (Blair Witch: History or Hysteria?) hitch a ride with a Blair Witch tour group headed by Jeff Patterson, a local ne’er-do-well recently released from a mental hospital. Also along for the trip into the Black Hills are a practicing Wiccan (Erica Leerhsen) and a Goth chick with psychic powers (Kim Director). After a heated encounter with a rival tour group, the five witch hunters camp for the night in the ruins of Rustin Parr’s house – the site of the first movie’s ambiguous finale. Fueled by alcohol, drugs and perhaps a whiff of the supernatural, our annoying protagonists black out for five hours, a period of time they are unable to account for in the morning. When the members of the rival tour are found brutally murdered on Coffin Rock, Jeff Patterson and company emerge as the prime suspects.
The opening five minutes of Book of Shadows (the title is meaningless) constitute the only remotely entertaining portion of this misbegotten enterprise. Not coincidentally, this is the only part of the movie shot in the documentary style Berlinger is most associated with. Media snippets from the height of the Blair Witch hype orgy are shown, including – in what must be a sequel first – a clip from Roger Ebert’s review of the original movie (too bad Coppola never thought of this while making The Godfather, Part II). These are followed by ostensible man-in-the-street interviews with the citizens of Burkittsville, some enraged by the unwanted attention their town has received, others cashing in with souvenir stands offering replicas of Blair Witch Project‘s oh-so-terrifying bundles of twigs. This segment is funny, smart, naturalistic. For a brief, shining moment there is hope.
After this sequence, though, the movie self-immolates at dizzying speed. As in its predecessor, the leads are played by unknown young actors. This time, though, it would appear that the aspiring thespians were spared the grueling audition process inflicted on the original Blair Witch trio. The cast is so uniformly awful, my best guess is that their names were randomly selected from the phone book. Their shrill performances are a perfect match for the dopey, tone-deaf script and a blotchy visual presentation that makes you yearn for the handheld digital turbulence of the original. It all adds up to the sorriest quickie horror sequel since Jason turned in his hockey mask.
What pushes Blair Witch 2 beyond mere incompetence and into the realm of the loathsome, however, is the unpleasant way it mirrors Berlinger’s earlier work. (Any masochists still planning to see the movie and wary of plot spoilers should stop reading now.) In Brother’s Keeper and the Paradise Lost films, Berlinger explored a world far removed from the contemporary vision of America routinely belched out of the smokestacks of Hollywood – a backwater world populated by illiterate hillbillies, mullet-haired teens and intolerant rednecks. In their depiction of these individuals, the documentaries often walked a fine line between compassion and condescension. Berlinger’s always stayed just on the right side of that line, until now. Here, every townie in Burkittsville is a hateful, small-minded peckerwood, right down to the craggy-faced, ponytailed Sheriff Cravens (veteran character actor Lanny Flaherty in a flabbergasting turn that suggests Slim Pickens channeling Yosemite Sam). And what can Berlinger be thinking with an ending that seems to confirm all the prejudices against black-wearing, occult-dabbling teens his documentaries have been railing against? Is this his idea of satire? The result is such a botch; almost any reading could apply.
Here’s a suggestion for Blair Witch 3. Turn it over to Mark Borchardt, the budding horror auteur profiled in last year’s American Movie. Ragged as it is, his short film Coven shows a sharper eye and a deeper feeling for this milieu than anything on display in Book of Shadows. Why not give the guy a chance? He certainly can’t do any worse.