Monday, June 8, 2009

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

Back in the summer of 1999, a small independent horror movie captured America's attention. Filmed with a camcorder on an unbelievably meager budget, The Blair Witch Project became a huge cultural phenomenon when it was released. Love it or hate it, the movie was insanely successful and was a pioneer in how movies are promoted on the Internet.

It ended up being so popular that throngs of fans, some convinced that the movie was actually real, flocked to the small Maryland town where the movie purportedly took place. The town found itself flooded with Blair Witch fans roaming the town and its surrounding woods, all of whom were looking to satisfy their own curiosity.

This eventually served as the basis for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a sequel rushed out to theaters by the now-defunct Artisan Entertainment just fifteen months after the release of the original movie. But unfortunately, the sequel was nowhere near as well-received as its predecessor. While it managed to triple its budget when you consider the international box office numbers, it was dismissed and ultimately forgotten. Could that have been due to the unanimously negative reviews and audiences feeling a touch of Blair Witch burnout? Or could it have the Blair Witch herself have been involved? (I'm gonna say it was because the movie's unbelievably lame. That's my guess.)

As the movie begins, Blair Witch hysteria has hit Burkittsville, Maryland. Legions of fans have descended upon Burkittsville, much to the chagrin of the town's grizzled sheriff, Ronald Cravens (Lanny Flaherty). But while Sheriff Cravens and a number of Burkittsville's citizens don't really like all the annoying tourists roaming the woods and the cemetery with their camcorders, others have no problem enjoying the town's fifteen minutes of fame. Some of them even strike out to make a buck or two off the whole thing while they're at it.

One would-be entrepreneur is Jeff Patterson (Jeff Donovan), a Burkittsville resident recently released from a mental hospital. Inspired by the movie's popularity, he opened up his own online store, selling hats and T-shirts, rocks and dirt from the woods, and even homemade versions of the movie's iconic stick figures. When we meet him, he's branched out into giving tours of the forest, a business he's named "The Blair Witch Hunt."

Joining him on the maiden voyage of the Blair Witch Hunt are four clients: Stephen Parker (Stephen Barker Turner) and Tristen Ryler (Tristen Skyler), a couple researching the Blair Witch for the book they're writing; Erica Geerson (Erica Leerhsen), a practicing Wiccan worried that the movie may give people the wrong idea about her religion; and Kim Diamond (Kim Director), a psychic Goth chick who's along for the ride simply because she "thought the movie was cool."

Our unlikely heroes head out into the woods and set up camp for the night, only to awaken the next morning with no memory of what happened during the night. All of their gear has been trashed, but considering that they were drinking way too much beer and smoking way too much marijuana, a blackout and a mess to clean up are probably to be expected. But then they're hit with the news that the murdered bodies of a competing tour group have been found out in the woods. They're able to salvage the videotapes that Jeff had left recording all night, and they retreat to Jeff's house in order to piece things together. But as they get closer to discovering what happened during their mass blackout, their collective sanity is quickly pushed to the breaking point. So just what exactly happened to them after all?

I don't think anyone will argue that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was anything more than just a lame attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the first movie. I mean, is there any other reason for its existence? I can't fault Artisan Entertainment for wanting to strike while The Blair Witch Project was still fresh in everyone's minds. But was it a movie that absolutely needed to be made?

It doesn't really help anything that the movie feels rushed, sloppily put together, and generally unnecessary. And by now, I think most people have forgotten that The Blair Witch Project even had a sequel at all. So not only is Blair Witch 2 a subpar effort of the most disappointing kind, but it's forgettable too. That's already two strikes against it.

Let's start this critique with the direction from Joe Berlinger. This is the first (and thus far, only) "traditional" movie directed by Berlinger, a documentary filmmaker known mainly for Metallica's Some Kind of Monster and his two Paradise Lost films. For Berlinger's first venture into making a regular movie, his work isn't too bad, but I can't blame him for sticking with documentaries after this. It's not that Berlinger is a bad director or anything, but he doesn't do anything particularly memorable either. Outside of the occasional neat camerawork from cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, everything looks so... uninteresting. The lighting is dull, the set design is drab, the editing is a bit choppy, and everything else just feels flat.

On the DVD's commentary track, Berlinger noted that he was a victim of unwanted studio interference to a certain degree. He says that he wanted the movie to be more ambiguous; the scenes of the characters being interrogated by the cops were supposed to be part of a longer montage at the finale instead of being sprinkled throughout the movie, and the brief inserts of graphic violence were added by the studio at the last minute. Berlinger himself states that he felt these had a negative effect on the movie, and I have to agree. They work against the movie, and you're pretty much left believing that these kids are guilty by the end. There's no "did they or didn't they?" vibe, which could have made things creepier. Instead, we just end up with something that's more weird and less scary. It's a shame, really.

Berlinger does, however, manage to get a very good musical score from composer Carter Burwell. His music is really creepy and atmospheric, but it's unfortunately overshadowed by all the invasive heavy metal that's been cranked up to eleven. Watch the movie with your sound system turned too high, and you'll feel like you're sitting next to the speakers at Ozzfest. It's one thing to do the hard sell for the soundtrack album, but sometimes you just need to cut the viewer's ears some slack.

Next on my list is the screenplay, written by Berlinger and Dick Beebe. While I won't fault Berlinger and Beebe for wanting to try something different, they could have handled this a lot better. The script seems muddled and confused, like it wants to be something bigger yet doesn't know how to get there. It doesn't help anything that the characters are poorly done stereotypes that are really hard to like. The characters are so badly written that you almost feel insulted by their presence by the end of the movie.

Take, for example, the character played by Erica Leerhsen. She's essentially some aloof, Earth-loving hippie flower child who spends the whole movie spouting off about how witches aren't evil. And by the end of the movie, she turns out to be evil after all, thus defeating her own purpose. Then there's Kim Director's Goth character, who seems to exist only to be especially surly, drop a few choice F-bombs, and wear so much black that she looks like the album cover for Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove. And let's not forget the citizens of Burkittsville, who are depicted as being ignorant hillbillies. If I were a Wiccan, a Goth, or from Burkittsville, I'd have been righteously pissed off at Berlinger and Beebe.

The first three minutes of the movie are presented as a fictional documentary about the Blair Witch phenomenon, before transitioning into a more traditional style of film. Personally, I would have liked seeing what kind of movie Berlinger and Beebe could have crafted had they stuck with the mockumentary style. Berlinger was already an established documentarian, so the directorial aspect would have been taken care of. All he and Beebe would have needed to do was put together a script that would have worked. But since we're pretty much a decade too late to do anything about it, I don't think there's any real sense in complaining about what could have been.

And I do applaud Berlinger and Beebe for coming up with a rather novel concept. But unfortunately, it all ends up being bogged down with the mind-numbing silliness that ended up making it into the movie. Berlinger and Beebe could have written a horror movie that was analogous to the West Memphis Three, the trio of convicted murderers that were the focus of Berlinger's Paradise Lost documentaries. After all, Blair Witch 2 features a group, three of whom are a Goth, a witch, and a former mental patient, that have run afoul of a close-minded sheriff who doesn't hide his dissatisfaction with the group being in town. There's a lot of potential here. But all that potential goes to waste thanks to the poor writing.

Last up to bat is the cast. Let's start with Jeff Donovan, who you may recognize from Burn Notice or the Angelina Jolie movie Changeling. The character he plays is a kooky smartass who's a few letters short of a game of Scrabble, and Donovan manages to hit the right notes. He makes the character charming while sleazy and slightly irritating, which I found worked really well.

Unfortunately, I didn't feel that Donovan got a whole lot of his help from the rest of the cast, which ultimately makes him look bad and drags the movie as a whole further into the mire. And really, practically all of the characters are terrible thanks to the piss-poor script, so I can't say I'm all that surprised if it caused all of the actors to have trouble. Take Erica Leerhsen, for example. Leerhsen is obviously trying very hard, but her performance is hindered by a role that is dreadfully written, along with her own apparent inability to elevate the material and work with it.

The same can be said for Kim Director, who's stuck playing a badly-written caricature of how most people probably view Goths. The character is skeptical, abrasive, and generally annoying, and Director does nothing to make this flat character feel like a real person. Her performance ends up being just as hollow as the character.

Continuing the streak of bad acting, Tristen Skyler's work feels hollow as well. Her character seems to be the bipolar version of Judith O'Dea's character from Night of the Living Dead; the experience has caused her to go nuts, only with bouts of mania instead of O'Dea's shell shock. The only problem is that Skyler's performance tends to be silly at times and laughable at others. It's just way too hard to take her seriously.

Stephen Barker Turner brings up the rear in this review, and his acting is so over the top that by the end of the movie, it was way too hard to keep from laughing at the absurdity of his performance. I don't know whether it was Turner's intent or not, but he ends up making the character so utterly unlikable that I'm flabbergasted even thinking about it. It's just... wow.

Word is that Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez, the creators of the original Blair Witch Project, wanted to wait before doing a sequel, feeling that doing it right away wouldn't give them the time to really flesh it out. Unfortunately, Artisan just couldn't hold their horses and went ahead without them, cranking out this big ol' sack of lame in no time flat. Blair Witch 2 is a movie that could have built upon the franchise's mythology and made the original movie better because of it. Instead, it does the opposite, making me almost totally resent the first movie for having spawned this.

Anyone who has seen Blair Witch 2 can attest to the fact that, by all appearances, it was only made as a way to swindle money away from fans who were willing to consume anything with the Blair Witch brand name on it. It took what could have been an interesting concept and cranked out this sub-mediocre crap. And thus, I'm going to give Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 two stars. Let this movie stand as proof of what happens when what seems like a good idea is sent flying at ninety miles an hour straight into a brick wall of stupidity.

Final Rating: **