Witchy Poo
'Blair Witch 2' casts a magic spell of stupidity
By Rob Bricken

he task of making a sequel to the 1997 uber-hit Blair Witch Project is daunting at least. The movie made a jillion bucks out of nowhere on a budget of $30,000, used the marketing ploy of presenting itself as a documentary, and swept the nation into water cooler discussions over whether those durn kids had gone missing for real or not. (Brushing aside speculation that it was plagiarized from another similar project, The Jersey Devil.)

A sequel was inevitable, but could it live up to the hype?

To make a sequel in the same documentary style, and to again purport it as "real," would be decidedly lame; too many people caught Heather Donahue on Leno, so that was out.

To use the same amateur 'video' style would be unoriginal and equally as nausea-inducing as the first.

Yet those two factors were the key to The Blair Witch Project's success, and the two signature hallmarks of the franchise.

Thus the dilemma: a sequel would seem uninspired if it repeated its signature low-tech successes and be considered a Hollywood sellout if it didn't.

It's a no-win situation for the project, but all Hollywood producers can see is the 20,000 percent payback of the first. It is hard to envision a sequel to the Blair Witch walking that fine line and being any good at all.

Artisan, the film's distributors/owners, did make an honest attempt. They hired Joe Berlinger, previous director of murder documentaries, to helm the project. It sounds good; Berlinger might imbue a regular narrative with a documentary feel, thus avoiding both traps. The cast is again made up of unknowns in order to help blend the suspension of disbelief.

Even the plot Berlinger cooked up sounds pretty good: a bunch of kids, obsessed with the movie phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project, head up to Burkittsville, Maryland, for a tour of the movie's sites. Some kids believe the movie is true, some don't. They spend the night at the cabin where the first film's footage was 'found,' blank out for a few hours, and then start to freak out with visions and nastiness.

By addressing the phenomenon of the movie, Berlinger has an amazing possibility to comment on the power of popular culture, the distinction of fantasy and reality, as the characters are unsure whether the movie - or the strange occurrences haunting them - are real or imagined.

Good premise. Best of both worlds?

That's why it makes one wonder how Berlinger failed so completely.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is a total mess. It starts with a caption "This is a fictitious retelling of actual events that occurred after the release of the BWP" or some such, which is just insulting. No one believes for a minute this film is true. Then it shows a barrage of media clips about the BWP, including Kurt Loder and Roger Ebert, to indicate the first film's phenomenon, providing an effective basis for the characters.

But the film immediately makes the mistake of showcasing its characters, people so one-dimensional they're transparent (which might have been scarier) and running them through a plot so contrived that even Leprechaun would have declined.

Starting with the characters: leading off the decidedly unphotogenic crew is Jeff, Blair Witch-Hunt tour leader and former lunatic asylum inmate. Despite flashes to his straitjacketed past, Jeff had luckily rehabilitated well enough into society to wear a 90s goatee, turn the BW movie into a business and obtain several hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment within the span of a year. Erica is the witch who, given a chance to speak, bemoans the negative view the BWP is having on real witches (at one point she claims the BWP has caused modern 1700-era Puritan witch hunts to occur). Stephen and Tristan are the couple writing a book on the Blair Witch phenomenon - Mulder and Scully-level opposites about whether the BW is real (sans any chemistry or personality). Rounding off the crew is goth chick Kim, who is a goth because she dresses in black and is the closest the film gets to a believable, semi-competent character.

The plot: so these five spend the night in the BW woods and conveniently videotape it. Despite being drunk and high, they feel they've unnaturally blacked out during the course of the night, and despite neither knowing nor necessarily liking each other decide to retire to lunatic Jeff's abandoned factory/home to figure it out. Visions occur, not in that neat BW offscreen way, but in a very visible, exceptionally Hollywood-ized special effect way that robs each and every 'vision' of all suspense and horror. However, each vision causes each character to go to pieces and cry "Something came back from the woods with us."

That something was ludicrousness: from Jeff's abundant resources and Stephen and Tristan's decision to bring the only copy of their BW book project resources to the camp/tour to someone being filmed hiding all the film footage, never mind that the film footage showing it was supposed to have been hidden as well and this is physiologically impossible.

Never mind that the biggest head-trip of the movie is the Blair Witch's amazing film editing powers, as she manipulates the film taken during the night, and during the course of events. Of course, this is supposed to blur the lines between reality and fantasy; in fact it blurs the line between unintended humor and pure stupidity.

It won't be spoiling the ending to say some murders occur, because the film keeps showing bits of the epilogue interspersed throughout the film. This is a thoughtfully dumb move, exorcising an already dull flick of what little suspense it might have had. With the ending known, the conclusion is hardly the puzzler it obviously wants to be; see, the kids think it happened one way, while their videotape shows it another (again the BW wins the Oscar for editing, and maybe special effects).

A better question is: who cares about these idiots, who didn't suffer half the scares of the first three? And why should we ever believe the obviously mentally-challenged kids despite the actual movie's insistence to the contrary? And why didn't they have the Blair Witch working on this movie as well? She was badly, badly needed.

But Book of Shadows suffers most from one thing: at some point, someone in charge forgot to remember that the other intrinsic element of the Blair Witch franchise - that it is, in fact, a horror movie.

Amazingly, despite a few onscreen murders, despite countless spooky visions of dead children (with black makeup under their eyes - they look more in danger of asking you for candy than wreaking vengeance from beyond the grave), despite all the paranoia the characters appear to be feeling onscreen, the movie is just not scary. Not once. You will hear no gasps from the crowd. Your girlfriend will neither shriek nor clasp your hand in a vice-like grip.

People who are not fans of the first Blair Witch movie will probably not like this movie. Fans of BW1 will definitely hate it, as it winnows the horror, the uniqueness, and the realism out of the first and leaves only a cold and empty tomb.

Yawns, sighs, and guffaws welcomed the Blair Witch back to this theater.