Friday, January 16, 2015

Review: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

Rated R for violence, language, sexuality and drug use

I'll give Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 credit for two things: it looked slick, and it tried something different from the original film, and indeed many other horror films of its time. The Blair Witch Project remains a classic supernatural horror film (yeah, I said it), one that became a pop culture touchstone for the Y2K era and served as an antecedent to an entire "found footage" sub-genre of mockumentary horror films in which the main characters record the scary situations around them on video cameras (though it wouldn't be until Paranormal Activity ten years later when the style really took off). Even after it became obvious that Blair Witch was not, in fact, the lost footage of three documentary filmmakers who disappeared in the Maryland woods, there were people who still believed there was some grain of truth behind the film's elaborate mythology. Such was the film's power -- people wanted it to be real even though they knew it was a hoax. It was like an urban legend, or what people raised on the internet nowadays might call a "creepypasta".

Given that the film was such a hit, a sequel was inevitable. It wasn't a film that particularly needed a sequel, but we got one anyway. And to be honest, the idea that the makers of this film had was probably the best thing this film had going for it. They knew they couldn't repeat the breakout success of the original, so they tackled the elephant in the room head-on by making a film that was, at its core, all about the breakout success of the original. Gone is the found-footage conceit in favor of post-modernism, with the original film existing in this film's universe. The town of Burkittsville, Maryland, whose surrounding woods the original film was set in, has become an overnight tourist trap, as people from all over the world flock there to get their own "Blair Witch experience". (This is indeed something that happened in real life after the film came out, which the townsfolk were not amused by in the slightest, an animosity that is reflected here.) This film follows five of those people -- Jeff, a local tour guide who's leading the group, Stephen and Tristan, a couple writing a book about the legend, Erica, a Wiccan who felt that the original film was the latest in a long line of gross misrepresentations of witchcraft, and Kim, a goth chick who loved the first film. While camping in the woods at night, they wake up to find their campsite trashed, their video cameras destroyed, the tapes from those cameras buried in a hole, and Stephen and Tristan's research shredded and flurried all over the place. The group heads back to Jeff's place (a converted, run-down factory) to examine the tapes and figure out what the hell happened to them, only to find that their nightmare is just getting started.

Now, look, I can respect that this film tried to take a new tack, ensuring that, at the very least, it would be a curiosity for fans of the original, much like how Halloween III: Season of the Witch (the Halloween movie that didn't have Michael Myers in it) is for fans of the Halloween movies. Unfortunately, given the execution, that's all it will ever be: a curiosity, not just for Blair Witch fans, but for aficionados of terrible movies. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is an absolute train wreck, its script flying right off the rails from the word "go", its acting and writing an embarrassment, and its attempt to have some sort of message about obsession with movies taken too far amounting to almost nothing in the end. By many accounts, much of this was the result of needless meddling by the studio to make it a more traditional horror film, but watching this film, its disjointed story is hardly the only thing wrong with it.

No, the first and most immediate problem with this film is the characters. Each of them gets the thinnest development in the first act that is never built upon in the rest of the film. Tristan is six weeks pregnant and doesn't want to have the baby, but her boyfriend Stephen wants to keep it, a plot thread that is almost completely dropped after Tristan has a miscarriage shortly after the group's ill-fated campout. This is only mentioned once in the rest of the film, and virtually forgotten after. Likewise, we're shown in two early scenes that Kim is psychic, able to tell that Tristan is pregnant and thinking about an abortion and later using her powers to find the buried tapes, but these powers never come up again, not even in the form of "hey, hot psychic goth chick, can you tell us what the hell is going on here?" And we're shown in the opening that Jeff spent time in a psychiatric ward, which again never plays a role in the story. It didn't help that the acting was terrible. All five of the main actors gave performances that alternated between hammy and stilted, trying and often failing to show real emotion. And then you get into Sheriff Cravens, who chewed the scenery so hard that he felt one step away from Elmer Fudd. I won't lie, Cravens was awesome. He was probably the only character in the film who had his head on straight, ripping the main characters in the flash-forwards to the police interrogation that dot the film.

Unfortunately, this brings me to the film's second crippling problem, its structure. As I said earlier, this film got butchered in the editing room. Now, I'm gonna have to spoil the entire movie in order to detail what's wrong with the story here. Not like you're gonna see this anyway, but skip to the bottom if, for some reason, you don't want to be spoiled.

Okay? Okay. It turns out that the main characters were crazy... or possessed by the Blair Witch... or something. They killed another tour group that they got into an argument with towards the beginning of the film -- and not just killed, but ritualistically disemboweled. At first, they believed that Tristan had been possessed and led them to commit these gruesome acts, causing them to kill her, but after they're arrested, the sheriff plays back their video footage, revealing that they were just crazy. I haven't seen the director's cut of this film, but according to descriptions of it, director Joe Berlinger (who made the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries about the West Memphis 3 murder case) wanted to make it ambiguous as to whether or not the group had actually gone out and murdered people, and if so, whether or not supernatural forces had been acting on them. Was what we had been seeing through their eyes reality, with the Blair Witch having distorted the footage on the tapes, or were the tapes the true account of what had happened, with the main characters having been driven crazy by their obsession with the original film?

In the right hands, this could have been an utter mind-fuck of an ending on par with The Usual Suspects, one that could've delivered a great commentary on our relationship with horror movies and the line between reality and fiction (especially as it related to the "true story" phenomenon that was the first film) -- something that, in a time when creepypasta stories like Slender Man are at the center of real-life murders, is arguably more resonant than ever. Unfortunately, Artisan Entertainment was not the right hands. The studio reshot and reedited the film in post-production, taking most of the interrogation scenes and scattering them throughout the film as flash-forwards, while also sprinkling the film with quick shots of the gory murders and adding a soundtrack of nu metal and goth rock that sounds hilariously dated fifteen years later, all to make a more conventional horror flick that would appeal to fans of the original (even though, at the time, The Blair Witch Project was anything but conventional). The result was a disjointed mess that made it all too obvious that the main characters were killers from the moment we learn about the other group's violent end.

The ambiguity is shot in another direction, too. Rather than leaving us guessing whether or not there really was a Blair Witch, we get so many contradictory clues that either version of the events becomes riddled with plot holes, the film often ignoring its own mythology. What was the point with the ghost girl? The owl motifs? The assorted hallucinations? Tristan's role in the murders? I know that Berlinger was trying to imply that it was the main characters' familiarity with horror movies informing their delusions, but the butchery done to the film's progression undoes its stated goals. In one scene, we're told that the runes Erica discovered at the ruins of Rustin Parr's house aren't evil, but when those same runes start showing up again, appearing on the characters' bodies, Erica starts panicking and claiming that they've been marked for death by the Blair Witch. Hell, Jeff's backstory as a former mental patient never becomes important, despite the note that the film ended on.

Score: 1 out of 5

A case study in good ideas gone horribly wrong, from its terrible acting and dull characters (except the Sheriff, he was awesome), to plot threads and motifs that go nowhere, to a host of plot holes, to choppy editing and stylistic flourishes that undid the message it was trying to deliver. Even knowing its awful reputation going in, it was painful to see so much potential wasted, because this was a film that, despite being a cash-in sequel that nobody asked for, could've been great with its unique story -- something that I'd love to see another team take a stab at, perhaps without the baggage of the Blair Witch attached.

No comments:

Post a Comment