The Blair Witch Switch

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 goes Hollywood in a bad way. 

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Artisan Entertainment 

Few horror sequels are as gutsy, intricate, and original as the new Book of Shadows:Blair Witch 2, and few go wrong in such catastrophic ways. Lordy, what a stinker. The movie, directed and co-written by Joe Berlinger, isn’t a lazy retread of The Blair Witch Project (1999) but a fractured and semi-satirical meditation on it. Berlinger takes as his subject the box office phenomenon of the first film, and then goes on, with both fervor and an amazing lack of genre savvy, to raise solemn issues about the role of media in messing with people’s heads and inducing them to commit acts of violence. Is the Blair Witch herself driving the movie’s young, impressionable protagonists to murder, or have they simply watched too many horror pictures? These are timely questions, but they have nothing to do with The Blair Witch Project and the kind of free-floating malignance that last summer made audiences sick with fear. The sequel is so un-scary that it’s … scary.

Say what you will against the original: It made ingenious use of its own limitations, both budgetary and artistic. Everything it lacked—an omniscient point of view, a center of gravity, a vibrant palette—enhanced its eeriness. Those jittery frames, the bleached and grainy sameness of the woods, the omnidirectional clatter in the black night: The movie was stripped down to pure dread. After the self-conscious jokiness of the Scream pictures and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The BlairWitchProject was a chill reminder of our quasi-religious impulse to seek out ghost stories in the first place—to renew our childlike acquaintance with the irrational. Ask not for whom Heather Donahue snivels: She snivels for thee.

The sequel starts with a full head of vérité steam, and for a few brief minutes it seems as if Berlinger might pull this heady mixture off. We’re back in Burkittsville, Md., in the fall after the first film’s release. Kurt Loder reports on the mania for MTV, Roger Ebert details the movie’s plot, and commentators laud the picture’s Web site. Convoys of teens converge on the ramshackle town and shell out big bucks for rocks and bundles of twigs while a sheriff on a bullhorn screams at kids amid the trees: “Get outta those woods and go home! There is no goddamn Blair Witch!” It’s hilarious but creepy, too, because those kids are headed into that familiar denuded forest, and a frisson from the first picture lingers. How can we help thinking, “Don’t go in those woods, you dummies!”?

But then there’s a burst of hard rock and an omniscient, 35-millimeter camera swoops over the trees, and we’re suddenly in the land of conventional horror movies—of Friday the 13th (1980) and TheEvil Dead (1983) and all those other splatter flicks in which attractive young people set out to party hearty while we munch our popcorn and wait for someone to be impaled. These victims-to-be are on a tour led by Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), an entrepreneur with a thriving Blair Witch Web business who’s sort of like Gilligan after electroshock therapy. Our Ginger is Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a dishy blondish Wiccan who says The Blair Witch Project was a slander on her kind. “We embrace nature, not evil,” she announces, stretching out on the ground to show off her cute navel chain and adding that she wants the Blair Witch to be her mentor. Kim (Kim Director) is a snarling, black-eyed Goth goddess with alleged psychic powers and a penchant for relaxing under headstones. Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and the unhappily pregnant Tristen (Tristen Skyler) are writing a book about the Blair Witch, but disagree on whether she’s real or a product of hysteria: They seem to want her as their thesis adviser.

There is a difference between Blair Witch 2 and other into-the-woods shockers: The flat talk is interspersed with arty flashbacks and flash-forwards of chests getting carved up and throats slit and half-glimpsed naked bodies drenched in gore. Something monstrous has either just happened or is about to happen—but what and by whom and to whom? The yucko inserts aren’t anchored to anything: There isn’t enough clarity for fear. Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) had this kind of zigzag, psychic syntax and managed to conjure up real terror, but that was a movie with a nerve-wracked present tense, with two people (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) trying to find each other amid a thicket of tragic memories and grisly premonitions. In Blair Witch 2, the present barely exists. In the woods, the five dull characters get drunk and stoned and black out for five hours that might or might not have been captured on videotapes found buried in the same spot as Heather’s. Their attempt to view the tapes and reconstruct what happened—to figure out where those hours went and if they “brought something back” with them—don’t generate much more than mild curiosity, and their hallucinatory visions of ghosts and wood demons are less apt to make you shudder than to exclaim, “Cool special effect!”

The movieish quality of those visions isn’t unintentional. In the press notes, Berlinger actually says, “Most of the delusions that they’re having are like horror movie clichés.” What lunacy! Doesn’t he realize that we responded to The Blair Witch Project because it made us forget about the clichés of other horror films? Berlinger, who co-directed the vérité documentaries Brother’s Keeper (1992) and the eerie Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), was actually a great candidate to direct a movie with the grim power of the original. But he wanted something bigger, fancier, more far-reaching than just another blood-freezing pseudo home movie, and so he bypassed his own strengths.

The more basic problem is that Berlinger picked the wrong film as the foundation of his meditation. If he’d really wanted to examine the effect of violence in the arts on people’s actions, he should have looked at vigilante flicks, in which the heroes’ righteous killings do influence people’s impulses and views on such matters as the death penalty. Or he could have considered those Scream pictures, which turn bloody death into orgasmic spectacle, to see if youngsters have become inured to the real thing. But nothing in the original Blair Witch Project—which is about fear of the unknown, pure and simple—seems inclined to inspire murderous delusions. The only hysteria it has inspired is that of an unprecedented number of would-be filmmakers who think that with $35,000 and a video camera they have a shot at the brass ring. Actually, the upshot of that delusion might prove more horrifying than anything in Blair Witch 2