Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Films of 2000: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

“The following is a fictionalized re-enactment of events that occurred after the release of The Blair Witch Project. It is based on public records, local Maryland TV broadcasts, and hundreds of hours of taped interviews. To protect the privacy of certain individuals, some names have been changed.”

-Opening Card for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) followed hot on the heels of The Blair Witch Project’s (1999) record-breaking box office engagement, no doubt hoping to strike again while the iron was still hot.

The result is a horror film with moments of fleeting intelligence and promise, but one that feels, overall, half-baked. Perhaps this is a case in which a little more development time would have benefited the creative team, and allowed for a re-consideration of some of the dodgier moments and ideas.

This horror sequel was directed by Joe Berlinger, a thoughtful documentary filmmaker who has helmed such worthwhile efforts as Brother’s Keeper (1992), Paradise Lost (1996) and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004). 

Berlinger is not a hack, and the fact that Book of Shadows often looks very much like the product of a hack is likely the (unfortunate) result of heavy creative interference.

Still, the second Blair Witch picture suffers from a terrible and unenviable burden: the desperate need to successfully follow-up a surprise and innovative hit movie, and yet somehow not seem like a rerun or cash-grab.

Accordingly, the decision was made not to repeat the found footage formula of the Myrick and Sanchez original.  Frankly, the film’s many deficits may all stem from that single creative decision, because going from BWP’s hyper-reality to Book of Shadow’s traditional “movie” reality is a jarring, and often distasteful experience.  

One cannot escape the sense that reality, or verisimilitude, has been lost, even sacrificed, in the transition from the first film to the second.

Because of its notable stylistic differences from The Blair Witch Project, the sequel feels like it takes place in another universe all-together. It is shot in lush, vivid color, features conventional horror special effects, and casts nubile young women as “eye candy.”  Even the familiar 1980s “vice precedes slice-and-dice” paradigm is reinstated for this film as the young attractive characters smoke weed, booze it up, and get frisky by moonlight…just in time to be manipulated by the Blair Witch.

Frankly, the film looks and feels very much like a 1997-1999 Wishmaster or Hellraiser sequel, and one that might have gone direct-to-video, skipping theaters all-together.  There is nothing visually distinct about the film; nothing to mark it as the next chapter in the Blair Witch mythos.

To describe this another way, Book of Shadows plays out like a very conventional, very generic turn-of-the-century horror film, even though one can pinpoint moments that attempt to ascend to the brilliant “meta”-reality of the source material.

But for every one of those moments Book of Shadows offers up poorly calibrated performances, non-persuasive quick-cuts of gore (meant to up the film’s “visual violence” quotient) and confusion about how this installment interacts with its famous (infamous?) predecessor.

Again, one can argue that Berlinger and the other filmmakers made the only choice possible under the circumstances, deciding not to recreate the unique alchemy of The Blair Witch Project. 

But just look at the results. This is a sequel that feels like a fakey Hollywood movie, and doesn’t really offer anything coherent in terms of philosophy, or even in terms of “in-franchise” universe development.

Book of Shadows is a total misfire, even considering the no-doubt sincere efforts of Berlinger, and the decision to move the franchise in a new and original direction.

We can say now, with sixteen years of retrospect, that the new path offered by the Blair Witch sequel was also the wrong one.

“Perception is reality.”

Less than a year after the release of the hit horror film, The Blair Witch Project (1999),  the town of Burkittsville is under siege by tourists and fortune-seekers.

One such fortune seeker is former mental patient, Jeffrey Patterson (Jeffery Donovan), who has started a tour company dedicated to exploring the Black Hills, called Blair Witch Hunt.

On his latest excursion, Jeffrey takes two writers -- Stephen (Stephen Ryan Parker) and his girlfriend Tristen (Tristine Skyler) -- who are doing research on the Blair Witch and mass hysteria to the foundation of Rustin Parr’s house, which burned down years earlier. It is there, however, that Heather Donohue’s footage was found, setting off the Blair Witch Craze.

Along with a Wiccan, Erica (Erica Leerhsen), and a Goth, Kim (Kim Director), the trio stays the night in the Black Hills. 

The next morning, however, no one can account for hours of missing time, the destruction of Stephen and Tristen’s research, or the destruction of Jeffrey’s video cameras. 

Worse, a group of tourists are discovered dead -- murdered -- at Coffin Rock, and the local Sheriff, Cravens (Lanny Flaherty), suspects Jeffrey and his group.

Jeffrey brings his clients back to his house, an abandoned factory in the Black Hills, and, after finding his footage, attempts to recreate the mystery of their missing time.

Meanwhile, the spirit of a little girl comes to them, and warns the cursed souls they have brought something back from the woods with them; possibly the Blair Witch herself.

“We’re all virgins on this bus.”

The film quote above -- “we are all virgins on this bus” -- is a good shorthand, actually, for78 summing up the deficits and challenges of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. 

After The Blair Witch Project, none of us are virgins on this particular bus ride.  

We’ve all been to the woods, and encountered young people cursed by a reality-bending supernatural entity. We’ve seen the Burkittsville town sign (now ensconced on a wall in Jeffrey’s house), and we’ve been to the Burkittsville-Union Cemetery too.  We’ve been lost in the woods, and we’ve contended with altered states of reality.

So, with the knowledge that there are no virgins on this bus, how does a filmmaker make this story seem fresh and new again, especially after some moments in the original -- including Heather’s close-up confession -- ascended immediately to the level of pop culture touchstones?

Book of Shadows doesn’t really offer a coherent solution for that challenge, so it provides several different alleyways which become, finally, dead ends.   

For instance, the film opens with a title card, which establishes that this is movie a “fictionalized” re-enactment of real events. That means that the film acknowledges, up front, that the individuals in the story, like Jeffrey, are being played by actors. That’s what the term re-enactment means.

Yet when the film purports in its opening scenes to show the audience “real” footage of Burkittsville locals, who shows up there but Jeffrey, played by the same actor (Jeffrey Donovan)?

The two moments, taken in tandem, generate creative dissonance.  Either Jeffrey is an actor playing a role in a fictionalized “re-enactment” or a real individual caught on tape in Burkittsville as the newscast footage indicates.

So which is it?  Because he can't be both.

Secondly, if this is a re-enactment, one wonders why some moments are presented in a highly-stylized, two-dimensional, horror-comic-book nature, and others are not. The youngsters, for example, all seem generally “real,” not exaggerating their reactions or roles. 

But just look at the (godawful) scenes showcasing Jeffrey's stay in a mental hospital. 

They are rife with cockeyed angles, strangely made-up nurses, and doctors, and so forth, all suggesting not any concept of reality, but rather heightened, comic-book reality.  Again, would a re-enactment attempting to recreate a real event adopt this particular visual approach?  More to the point, would it tread, at all, into Jeffrey’s incarceration and treatment by doctors? 

And then consider the performance of Lanny Flaherty as Sheriff Cravens, who plays a stereotypical “hick” law enforcement official.  He is such a walking, talking cliché, it is impossible to consider him “real,” and so again we face a crisis suspending disbelief.  No re-enactment would portray a sheriff in such a fashion. A re-enactment wants to seem real; only a horror movie tries up the ante with such stylized performances.

The Blair Witch Project ran on parallel realities, in a sense. In one interpretation of reality, something supernatural chased down Heather and her friends in the woods.  In another, three kids out in the wild got lost, scared themselves silly, and eventually died, leaving behind a testament not to the supernatural, but to their own hysteria. 

 all, the cameras saw nothing, really, or at least nothing that pointed, definitively, to a witch.

To its credit, Book of Shadows attempts to recreate this meta-reality formula or dynamic through the characters of Stephen and Tristen. 

Stephen believes that the Blair Witch story is indeed one “created by hysteria,” and he even likens Burkittsville to the Bermuda Triangle. By contrast, Tristen thinks the story of the Blair Witch exists in a “place of truth.”

They keep arguing, and that’s the point.  As the film’s dialogue points out, “perception is reality," and each of us possesses different perceptual sets. We select those things that seem to conform to our previous life experience, after all.  Therefore, we each experience life a little differently.  This idea was clearly intended to be the through line of the film, and yet it doesn’t really come through successfully.

At the beginning of the film, for instance, we see “real” life people Kurt Loder, Roger Ebert, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien talking (on their respective TV programs) about The Blair Witch Project.  Then we meet the locals of Burkittsville and the tourists there. All of these individuals perceive a different reality.  For the townspeople, there is a sense of annoyance and bemusement with the tourists.  For the tourists there is a promise of encountering something truly new, something truly different. For the TV personalities, it's all an abstract exercise in either criticism, news reporting, or humor.

The idea, again, is that those on the Blair Witch Hunt are the product of these roiling differences in perception and conflicted psychologies. They go out into the woods, and commit murder.  But they commit murder because either they are hysterical -- worked up into a froth by the movie’s popularity -- or because a witch now controls them.

Overall, Book of Shadows vets its dual reality in a scattershot, incoherent fashion. The skeptic, Stephen, for instance, actually sees a backwards-walking child ghost on the bridge to Jeffrey’s house, and she tells him, literally, that he has brought something back from the woods.

Stephen never tells anyone about this encounter, and stubbornly clings to his belief that the Blair Witch is just hysteria.

Because who is he going to believe: his masters’ dissertation, or his lying eyes?

The film boasts other problems as well. A key plot point is the murder of tourists at Coffin Rock.  We meet these doomed characters just once (and quite briefly at that), so their deaths mean virtually nothing in terms of the story or in terms of audience identification.  There is no drama surrounding their deaths, no feeling of loss.  Nothing at all.

We also never see, recreated in much meaningful detail, the protagonists murdering them. Instead, all we get are these violent quick cuts of gore close-ups. 

These same shots could have been used to establish anybody killing the tourists, so they are not exactly persuasive, or memorable. We see these cuts from the very beginning of the film (even during the opening credits), in intrusive insert shots, and they don’t really connect in a way that carries emotional resonance.  

We don’t know the victims, and since we have seen a ghost literally warn the characters about the existence of something evil, we never interpret the crimes, as the filmmakers hope, as an act of mass hysteria or madness.

Another “track” going in Book of Shadows is surely one of social critique. We meet Jeffrey, who runs a Blair Witch store on-line that sells hats, T-shirts, stick figures, key chains and so on.  He talks about E-Bay, etc.  The point seems to be that there is a sucker born every minute, and that The Blair Witch Project isn’t so much as a movie but rather a 75 minute advertisement for licensed merchandise.

Perhaps this commentary is supposed to be amusing, but I’m not convinced that an official sequel to The Blair Witch Project is the right place for it as a major theme.  Ostensibly, people seeing this film want to see the property treated in a respectful fashion, and learn more about its universe (and central, if unseen, figure: the witch).  

Instead, this movie has the bad taste and temerity to suggest that The Blair Witch Project is responsible for inspiring the (fictional) murders at Coffin Rock. But we all know from Scream (1996), of course, that horror movies don’t make people killers. They make killers more inventive. 

Even in terms of pure plausibility, Book of Shadows comes up a bit short. Every character begins to get a red rash on their torso that just happens to look exactly like the letters of the Pagan Alphabet, and nobody seems really bothered by it.

I would surely be more concerned.

Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project was an immersive experience. You were dropped into the woods with those characters, and your hopes and fears rose and fell with each new discovery.  Book of Shadows never casts an aura like that. It never creates a coherent reality.  And without that structure underlying it, the film is never frightening.

The film is smart enough to know that “people just want to see something,” but this sequel never decides, really, what it should show, or what it shouldn’t show.  It doesn’t even really, decide, I fear, what actually happens in the film.  

It’s either a re-enactment or not.  It’s either mass hysteria or not. 

Unfortunately, there are two things we can decide Book of Shadows never is: scary or good.

1 comment:

  1. "Frankly, the film looks and feels very much like a 1997-1999 Wishmaster or Hellraiser sequel, and one that might have gone direct-to-video, skipping theaters all-together. There is nothing visually distinct about the film; nothing to mark it as the next chapter in the Blair Witch mythos."

    I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that the sequel was adapted from a more generic horror script floating around Hollywood, revised and buffed up with Blair Witch touchstones. We've seen it before. At least one of the Hellraiser sequels (Hellraiser: HellWorld) is known to have been adapted from an unrelated script. Why not Blair Witch, especially if they were pressed for time.