Blair WItch 2 Defense

Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: the much-derided sequel to The Blair Witch Project actually rules, thank you very much.)

A little over a year after The Blair Witch Project hit theaters and subsequently became a box office phenomenon, Artisan Entertainment released a sequel that did…the opposite.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was meant to capitalize on the success of the first film, expanding the mythology for Blair-obsessed audiences eager for another trip to the Burkittsville woods. But Joe Berlinger’s self-aware sequel failed to bewitch fans the same way its predecessor had. And that’s a shame because Book of Shadows is one of the most delightful and rewarding sequels in horror history.

Be Careful What You Wish For

It’s a woefully familiar tale: Studio releases scrappy film into the world. Film becomes unlikely box office hit. Fans, unable (or unwilling) to be content with the singular story they were given, want more. Studio decides to make a sequel, hoping for repeat success. This is why we have movie franchises, which aren’t some new-fangled invention – they’ve been around since the early days of cinema. Following the success of the first Blondie film in 1938, Columbia Pictures produced 27 sequels. (And you thought the MCU was bloated.) So it wasn’t entirely surprising when Artisan decided to produce a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. What was surprising to most viewers, however, was just how much the sequel differed from its predecessor.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (mostly) trades the found footage style in for a more conventional narrative approach. Berlinger’s film takes place in a world where the events depicted in The Blair Witch Project actually happened; Heather, Josh, and Mike were real film students who actually disappeared while trying to uncover the truth behind the Blair Witch legend. Interested in retracing the trio’s steps and investigating the legend for themselves, an unlikely group of strangers sign up for a Blair Witch tour guided by Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan) – a self-styled expert on all things Burkittsville who’s successfully capitalized on the local tragedy. Through his website, he sells dirt from the woods and witch sticks (which he assembles in his home), and offers to take looky-loos on guided tours through the woods. The group includes Kim, a disaffected goth fascinated by all things morbid; Erica, a self-professed Wiccan who empathizes with the Blair Witch; and married grad students Tristen and Stephen, who are knee-deep in a research project on mass hysteria and local mythology.

Each of these characters are stereotypes – not only of the types of people you’d expect to sign up for a tour of the allegedly haunted woods where three students mysteriously vanished, but of the people who were obsessed with The Blair Witch Project. That’s because Book of Shadows is deliberately a meta-satire, one that pokes fun at the rabid desire for a sequel. These characters represent you, or me, or any number of Blair Witch fans, be it the earthy Wiccans who despise the way the film portrays witches in a negative, archaic light, or the goth kids who flirt with the occult, or the true crime aficionados (sup, Murderinos) that enjoy sifting through the facts behind the fiction.

Book of Shadows posits a darkly humorous hypothetical based on the real (and really gullible) people who bought into The Blair Witch Project’s wildly successful viral marketing: What if a group of these fans went out into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland and tried to find the Blair Witch? And what if all those legends were true? Berlinger heightens that concept, transforming the found footage element into an accessory – or a weapon; one that’s used to the detriment of these dummies.

You Just Don’t “Get It,” Man

One of the biggest complaints about Book of Shadows is that it’s too corny; that it’s emblematic of the era in which it was released – the year 2000, with all the Nu Metal and bondage pants from Hot Topic that implies. And while the soundtrack certainly validates that complaint, the film itself is far from corny. If anything, it’s campy; mostly, it’s a self-aware piece of satire that targets an audience that just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Berlinger’s film doesn’t necessarily hate that audience, but it does have plenty of fun at their expense.

This is most evident in the character of Jeff. With his mountains of merch and his salesman schtick, he is a satirical proxy for the studio execs behind Book of Shadows – and any other sequel that was created solely for the purpose of capitalizing on the success of the first film. Jeff is also sort of like the average fan; he wants to prolong the Blair Witch Project narrative for his personal enjoyment for as long as possible, regardless of how it might insult the integrity of the film (or in this case, the memory of the “real” victims).

In this sense, Book of Shadows also does a fine – and occasionally unnerving – job of exploring the ways in which our fandoms can become obsessions, and how those obsessions can become detrimental. That is often (though not always) especially true for those who are already suffering from mental health issues, such as Jeff – who, as we eventually learn, has a history of being institutionalized and treated for a vague psychological disorder.

I could argue that those who don’t enjoy Book of Shadows just don’t get what Berlinger was going for. The meta-commentary was perhaps a little too ahead of its time. Metafiction is far from new, and its use can be dated all the way back to Homer and Shakespeare. Just two years before Book of Shadows was released, audiences went crazy for another work of metafiction: The Truman Show. But it would still be several years before millennials turned “meta” into a buzzy pop culture mainstay. If Book of Shadows were released now, I’ve no doubt that more people would love it; almost every review would describe it as “so meta.”

There’s a Reason Why You Probably Don’t Get It, Though

And it comes down to that ol’ classic phrase: Studio interference. Artisan’s eagerness to strike while the iron was hot led to a rushed production. They hired Berlinger, who had only previously directed documentaries (great ones, too: My Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost), and that experience directly informed and shaped his narrative for Book of Shadows. Berlinger spent time in the real town of Burkittsville, where he spoke to various residents and asked how the release of The Blair Witch Project had affected them. In his audio commentary for the DVD release of Book of Shadows, Berlinger explained that the script – which he co-wrote with Dick Beebe – was also inspired by the “lazy consumption of media” and “how readily [the public is] willing to accept that something shot on video is real.” He goes on to say that the film was intended as “a meditation on violence in the media, and the nature of fanaticism and obsession…and the dangers of blurring the lines between reality and fiction” – all of which is readily apparent in the film itself.

Perhaps those intentions were too high-brow for Artisan, which demanded re-shoots to make Book of Shadows a more commercial horror film – this, despite the fact that Berlinger’s choice to shoot mostly in the straight-narrative format already made Book of Shadows appear more conventional, at least on its surface. In the weeks leading up to release, Berlinger was forced to shoot new scenes and re-cut existing footage. The most notable scene added is the “found footage” of the main characters murdering a group of tourists; the sequence appears in the third act, when the characters are beginning to piece together what happened overnight in the woods. During several hours they can’t remember, they apparently disemboweled the tourists in ritualistic fashion, destroyed Tristen and Stephen’s research, and danced naked around a fire.

The scene is deliberately set to “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” by Queens of the Stone Age – itself a satire of generic stoner rock songs. The lyrics are monotonous and juvenile, with the same lines repeating over and over: “Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol… Cocaine!” That Berlinger chose this specific track feels like a clever middle finger to Artisan.

Berlinger’s intention was to create a psychological horror film about obsession in which the characters slowly descend into madness, and which ends on a somewhat vague note regarding what happened in the woods. That would’ve been in keeping with The Blair Witch Project, but Artisan wasn’t satisfied with this approach, so they forced Berlinger to re-edit the interrogation scenes in which the characters are confronted with their crimes in a local police station. Those scenes were originally meant to bookend the film, to further underline – but not quite answer – the question of the group’s sanity. The director’s cut of the film features a more linear narrative that traces the characters’ evolution – or descent – into psychosis, mirroring the escalation of personal obsession. But Artisan made Berlinger break up the interrogation scenes and intersperse them throughout the film, which admittedly confuses the narrative a bit and breaks any mounting tension.

All of which is to say that I can’t entirely blame someone for not enjoying or “getting” Book of Shadows. It’s a narratively and tonally confused film, but there’s something scrappy and endearing about it. Buried within the re-shoots (which are quite obvious) is a work of metafiction that was too good for its purpose, too smart for the greedy studio who demanded its existence, and too clever for the year 2000.

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