Book of ShadowsBlair Witch 2

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When it was announced that Joe Berlinger would be the director of Blair Witch 2, it came as a surprise. Berlinger was primarily known for directing documentaries, such as Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost, not for directing horror movies. However, the choice of Berlinger was intriguing because it meant the sequel would likely defy expectations and strike off in new directions. Well ... that was the hope anyway.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 gets off to a strong start with a mini-documentary about the first film's impact on the town of Burkittsville (population 200). We see Blair Witch fanatics flocking to the Black Hills outside of Burkittsville and merrily traipsing across private property. The town sheriff grabs his bullhorn and angrily shouts at the trespassers: "Get the hell out of the woods! There is no goddamned Blair Witch!" This sequence is without a doubt the high point of Blair Witch 2. It's funny, it's witty, and it's insightful. We see fans of The Blair Witch Project responding as if on a pilgrimage.

But once the mini-documentary ends, the movie's central characters step forward, and they're one of the dullest groups to ever stumble into a grisly horror movie. They're self-centered, shallow, and narrow-minded. Listening to them talk is like listening to fingernails on a chalkboard.

Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan) is a tour group operator who has organized an expedition into the Black Hills. He delivers such specious bits of wisdom as "Film lies…. video tells the truth." After being released from a mental hospital, he watched The Blair Witch Project 17 times. Now he professes his belief in the Blair Witch while hawking witchy sticks on his Web site: "Ten thousand satisfied customers." Erica (Erica Leerhsen) is a practicing Wiccan. She decries the portrayal of witchcraft in The Blair Witch Project, but here she is--a paying customer on Jeff's tour of the woods. Tristen (Tristen Skyler) and Stephen (Stephen Barber Turner) are graduate students writing a fact-or-myth book about the Blair Witch. (Such dim-witted grad students deserve whatever happens to them.) And Kim (Kim Director) is a Goth aficionado drawn to the tour out of … boredom? She possibly possesses psychic abilities--when she isn't dulling her senses with booze.

Jeff leads this group into the forest, and they camp out at the location where The Blair Witch Project video footage was supposedly discovered (REVIEW OF THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT). That evening seems to pass rather uneventfully; however, in the morning Jeff discovers all his cameras have been destroyed. And more disturbingly, there appears to be a five-hour stretch of time that they can't account for. Discovering what happened during those five hours becomes the focus of the movie.

While director Berlinger has largely discarded the shaky-cam approach of the first movie in favor of a more standard Hollywood approach, we still get occasional doses of unsteady camerawork, as when Jeff and the others watch the surviving video tapes from the lost five-hour stretch. So Blair Witch 2 manages to pay homage to the original movie while striking off in a new direction. But it's this new direction that causes the most critical problems. While The Blair Witch Project placed a great value on the mystery surrounding the original murders and the uncertain fate that befell Heather, Mike, and Josh, Blair Witch 2 has no compunction about showing us what happens to this new group of characters. We see knives plunged into flesh. We see gutted corpses. We don't know for certain if they fall victim to a supernatural evil or to their own hysteria, but we see both alternatives worked out in rather explicit fashion.

Instead of keeping us stranded in the woods, Blair Witch 2 takes us to the abandoned factory that Jeff calls home. In the process, the forest ceases to have any force. The focus falls completely upon the characters--and they're too slight to carry the movie. Berlinger has no interest in the supernatural implications of the Black Woods. When witchy signs appear, such as the hand prints that mark a house's foundation, they convey no weight or urgency. Berlinger is primarily interested in focusing on mass-hysteria as the result of media frenzy. So we get to watch the horribly dull lead characters screaming and crying as they struggle to understand what happened to them in the woods. This was a potential pitfall of the original movie also, for watching Heather, Mike, and Josh screaming at each other frequently became downright irritating. But the evocative use of the forest effectively kept audiences on the edge of their seats.

Berlinger wants us to see his approach as fresh and new because the movie's evil force may--surprise!--come from the victims themselves. But Berlinger doesn't exhibit faith in his own approach. He strives for psychological profundities with characters that have little psychological depth. He treats his characters as if they're rejects from Urban Legends or Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer. Instead of presenting a credible scenario that might show the characters succumbing to their darker instincts, he hides the crucial sequence (from the missing five hours) until he can release it for shock value. In the process, he critically undervalues the movie's psychological ramifications while simultaneously positing mass-hysteria as the leading culprit. That's a contradiction from which the movie can't recover.

Director Berlinger and co-screenwriter Dick Beebe give us "Film lies ... video tells the truth" as their ultimate kernel of widsom: "The more amateur the video, the more we accept its credibility," says Berlinger in his "Director's Statement" (included with the movie's press kit). However, because the revelation from the missing five hours lacks a credible basis, video becomes the ultimate lie in Blair Witch 2, completely undermining the movie's intellectual thrust.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Artisan Entertainment
Movie Web site: The Blair Witch Legend
Review of The Blair Witch Project



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