Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) **½
Regardless of what you thought of the movie in and of itself, I think one thing about The Blair Witch Project is beyond any reasonable argument: the notion of a sequel is ridiculous on its face. How, after all, does one continue the story of a movie that has no story in the first place? But incredible as it may sound, Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, the creators of The Blair Witch Project, really have come up with a fairly decent movie this time. And in the same way that I felt compelled a year ago to give them credit for their originality even if they chose to use their powers for evil, they and director Joe Berlinger would deserve props for creativity here, even if Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 were just as big a swindle as its predecessor.
What Myrick, Sanchez, and Berlinger have done is partly to make the movie that should have been made the first time around. You remember all the bitching I did in my review of The Blair Witch Project about how its creators somehow managed, in the process of editing their great mass of footage down to an acceptable feature length, to edit the movie out of the movie and leave us with nothing but an endless hour and a half of college kids yelling “Fuck!” at each other? Remember all of my complaining that everything that ought to have been in the movie apparently ended up relegated to the promotional website? Well most, if not all, of the information we were denied in the setup to the first film comes out in conversation in Book of Shadows. This time, Myrick and Sanchez have chosen to clue us mere moviegoers in on some of the elaborate mythology they so painstakingly devised for the benefit of their internet customers, with the final effect that-- wonder of wonders!-- the movie actually makes something like sense from a narrative standpoint. And they have done so without sacrificing the gimmick-driven novelty value that was the first film’s real raison d’etre. (I know some people are going to take offense at me calling The Blair Witch Project a novelty movie, but in all honesty, I think it’s pretty clear that Myrick and Sanchez have a hell of a lot more in common with William Castle than they do with any maker of “art” movies.) Now obviously, you can’t play exactly the same trick on the movie-going public twice, especially not when you got such vast amounts of media attention the first time you played it, so it should come as no surprise that Book of Shadows has a very different gimmick from The Blair Witch Project. Though it makes one half-hearted stab at the cinema verite angle in a pre-credits sequence, what this movie is really about is toying with the cultural fallout from the original Blair Witch Project’s hype campaign, asking what might happen if some bunch of bozos concocted a bullshit story for a fake documentary, only to have it turn out that the story was true after all, while raising simultaneously the timeworn question of whether perception makes its own reality. This is both the key to Book of Shadows’ best moments and the gun with which it will accidentally shoot off one toe after another in its closing stages.
Among the characters to whom we are introduced in that pre-credits sequence I mentioned is a college-aged resident of Burkittsville, Maryland, named Jeff Patterson (Jeffrey Donovan). Despite the widely disseminated disavowal of The Blair Witch Project’s claims of documentary status, he like so many other numbskulls (in the movie at least-- I hope for sake of our future that real human beings have proven not to be as stupid as those presented here) insists on believing that the story of Heather Donahue’s disappearance is true. This is not altogether shocking, because Jeff’s reason for not seeing The Blair Witch Project on opening night was that he was confined to a mental hospital at the time, though he more than made up for lost time after he got out-- he says he saw the movie 17 times. However, believer or not, Jeff is perfectly willing to get in on the huge profits that the continuing Blair Witch hysteria has made available to those who are willing to collect rocks and twigs and dirt from the woods supposedly haunted by the witch. Not only does Jeff sell stick figures and rock piles and ziplock bags full of dirt from the ruins of the house where Heather’s film was “found,” he also sells T-shirts and baseball caps and assorted other crap-- all over the internet, of course. And now, in the summer of 2000, Jeff has hit upon the grandest Blair Witch cash-in of all: guided tours of the forest where it all happened. His tour group for the maiden voyage of the Blair Witch Hunt touring van consists of Stephen Parker (Stephen Barker Turner) and his pregnant girlfriend Tristen Ryler (Tristine Skyler), who have come to put the cap on their research for a book they are writing on the Blair Witch phenomenon; Erica Geerson (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Erica Leerhsen), a Wiccan who hopes to improve her craft under the tutelage of the witch’s spirit; and Kim Diamond (Kim Director), a psychic goth girl who has the simplest, most down-to-Earth motive of all for coming on the tour: “I just thought the movie was cool.” With a full array of camping gear, Parker and Ryler’s hundreds of pages of notes and documents, Jeff’s thousands of dollars’ worth of video equipment, and a truly heroic quantity of pot, speed, and alcohol, the fivesome strike out into the woods and make their camp in the ruined foundation of the Rustin house, where the previous movie had it that seven children were murdered half a century before and Heather Donahue and her companions pulled their final disappearing act in 1993. It’s a real party atmosphere at the campsite, and not even a rival tour group can spoil the mood-- Stephen, Jeff, and Kim get rid of the interlopers by sending them on a wild goose chase to Coffin Rock. Jeff’s cameras crank away as the campers plow their way through the intoxicants, hoping to see some kind of evidence of the supernatural come to light. They’ll get it the next morning.
The plan had been to stay up all night keeping watch, but (and this is scarcely surprising given how much drinking and doping everybody-- even pregnant Tristen-- was doing) come dawn, everyone has fallen asleep or passed out or blacked out, and they are all in for a rude awakening in the most literal sense of the term. The entire campsite is blanketed in the shredded remains of Parker and Ryler’s manuscript, all of Jeff’s camera equipment has been smashed to pieces, and everyone has weird rashes all over their bodies that they’re all too stupid to notice taking the form of Norse runes. And best of all, none of them remembers anything from the night before after the other tour group was sent packing. (Again, am I the only one thinking no supernatural explanation is necessary for that last part?) Jeff understandably blames the second tour group for the destruction, but when Kim’s psychic powers turn up all of his perfectly intact camcorder tapes in the very same hole in the ground where Heather Donahue’s were supposedly found, he’s not so sure anymore. Think about it-- if the folks from the Blair Witch Walk had wanted to ruin Jeff, why would they smash his cameras, but leave the tapes unharmed?
But they’ve got a bigger and more immediate problem on their hands than some smashed cameras and a shredded manuscript. Tristen starts to feel sick, and then notices that the crotch of her pants is soaked through with blood. And since pregnant women don’t get periods, that can mean only one thing-- miscarriage. (For the third time, what the fuck do you expect after all that debauchery?!?! Haven’t you ever seen a surgeon general’s warning, for Christ’s sake?!?!) They haul ass to the nearest hospital, but by the time they get there, it’s much too late for the baby, and it’s damn near too late for Tristen too. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Tristen starts having visions of the Blair Witch (who, interestingly enough, turns out to have been a prepubescent girl-- who’d have guessed?) in the hospital, and nightmares that suggest to her that she somehow deliberately miscarried the baby, which she had never particularly wanted in the first place. Meanwhile, Jeff has hit upon the idea of watching the tapes from his cameras in the hope of discovering what happened out in the woods during the tour group’s five lost hours. When Tristen is recovered enough to leave the hospital, all five get back in the van and head off to Jeff’s house, which turns out not to be a house at all, really, but rather a makeshift dwelling converted from some old 19th-century industrial building at the edge of the forest. It is here that the bulk of the movie will take place.
Now by this point, we in the audience know that most, if not all, of these people are going to come to very bad ends. Not only have we been seeing second-at-a-time glimpses of bad craziness out in the woods (lots of smashing and tying and stabbing and clubbing, some screaming, some chanting, a few glimpses of some naked person of indeterminate sex [trust me, it’s possible from the right camera angle] slitting people’s throats with a hunting knife), but there have also been brief scenes interspersed within the main action of various characters being interrogated by Sheriff Cravens (Lanny Flaherty, from Waterworld and Natural Born Killers) and some gray-suited detectives. So we have some idea what’s coming when the tapes themselves prove to have a significant time gap in them, the nature of the missing footage hinted at by a fleeting glimpse of Erica, naked, swinging herself around a sapling that all five campers distinctly remember having been a huge and ancient tree when they saw it in person, a glimpse that comes just before the gap in the tape. It starts to look increasingly likely that the spirit of the supposedly fictitious witch has followed them home, as all five campers begin having disturbing hallucinations (well, they’d be disturbing if you had them...) and behaving increasingly erratically. Then Sheriff Cravens puts in a call to Jeff’s place to announce that all five members of the Blair Witch Walk tour group were slaughtered under circumstances that hearken back to the Blair Witch-related ritual murders that were supposed to have occurred at Coffin Rock, and it’s clear that the party is over. By the time Cravens comes to arrest everyone, there have been even more deaths, and all of the surviving characters are left facing the prospect that either their sanity or reality itself has somehow broken down.
The problem is that the film wraps itself up in a veritable orgy of smug, self-congratulatory post-modernism, and starts to look more like a music video than a movie while it’s at it. A good yardstick with which to measure how post-modern a work of art is might be to ask how many layers of bullshit a person has to penetrate before he is able to experience it. And if you want to use that standard, Book of Shadows’ po-mo credentials are impeccable. Beyond the distancing effect inherent in the premise itself (a sequel that is as much about its predecessor as a cultural phenomenon as it is an attempt to continue the prior film’s story), there is the fact that the film’s resolution hinges on the discrepancy between the course of events as the characters perceived them and the course of events as depicted on the videotapes that Jeff obsessively made of the action as it unfolded. This is an intriguing idea in and of itself, but what makes this twist so cloying is that one of the first lines of dialogue to leave Jeff’s mouth is a statement that film lies, while video tells the truth. Book of Shadows is, of course, a film, while the tapes that the surviving characters watch incredulously at Craven’s police station are, naturally, video. Thus, by the movie’s reasoning, what we have been watching all this time is not to be trusted-- though it’s worth pointing out in this context that all the footage we see of the massacre for which the characters are blamed is shot on good old lying film. (I’ll leave the complications that follow from the fact that the audience watches the incriminating videotapes on film to whichever windbag film school professor wants to use the subject as an exam question...) Then there’s the title. Those who care about such things are probably asking, “Wait a minute-- what book? What shadows?” right about now. Once again, the filmmakers are fucking with us, and this time, the game they’re playing is so self-consciously “deep” that I just want to smack them. The “Book of Shadows” is film itself, which, for those who need to be reminded, consists of images formed when light strikes and darkens the photosensitive particles suspended in its emulsion coating. Pretentiousness on this scale deserves to be answered in the spirit of Kim Diamond’s first lines in this movie: When Erica finds her lying behind a tombstone and asks what she’s doing, Kim says she’s “trying to find the energy.” When Tristen then asks her, “The energy in the grave?,” Kim replies, “No-- the energy to get up! I’m fucking exhausted!”