of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
There are two acutely embarrassing facts arising from this sequel.
The first is the sorry discrepancy between its sheer ghastliness and all the giddy manifestos written scarcely a year and a half previously proclaiming the revolution in independent cinema inaugurated by The Blair Witch Project (1999).
The second is the identity of its director: Joe Berlinger, co-maker of the striking documentaries Brother's Keeper (1992) and Paradise Lost (1996).
The factors that made the original Blair Witch a freak, worldwide hit – Internet marketing and the exploitation of a raw, DVD aesthetic – cannot be repeated. Recognising this, Berlinger opts for a cleaner, more professional, artily constructed sequel.
It would be hard to find a more depressing example of the mainstream co-opting an independent venture, in the process draining it of all energy and resonance.
Another bunch of dumb, teenage dudes hits Burkittsville – not on the trail of the wicked Witch this time, but simply for the lame, postmodern fun of treading a spot now mythologised by a movie.
In its opening minutes, Book of Shadows contains some amusing (if overplayed) mockumentary gags about tourism and media hype. But once the story proper starts, it's all downhill.
Berlinger – in the most pretentious director's statement I have ever read – pitches this shocker as an earnest essay on media-fed hysteria and the nature of contemporary evil. What he intends as a tricky, multi-levelled exploration of reality and belief is, on every basic level of narrative craft, an inept mess.
An essential principle of the fantasy-horror genre is that, if a story hesitates between rational and supernatural explanations of gruesome events, it must offer substantial and persuasive evidence for both sides. We are meant to wonder, during Book of Shadows, whether the characters are merely hallucinating the horrors that befall them – and are thus morally responsible for the consequences – or whether there is a "force beyond".
However, since the video tapes that reveal what these teenagers really did to each other in the dead of night can only be viewed by Satanically typing the necessary computer commands backwards, Berlinger and co-writer Dick Beebe destroy the necessary ambiguity. This is only one of many fumbled plot points. Where, to take another howling example, is the Book of Shadows promised in the title?
Like the original, with its murky flashes of primal violence, this sequel tantalises us with the prospect of ultimately revealing something truly extreme – this time related to sex. What this amounts to is a hilarious MTV-style orgy in which – horror of horrors – two girls actually kiss for perhaps half a second.
Far from boosting a franchise, Book of Shadows spells the dead end of the contemporary horror film as so boldly redefined by Wes Craven's Scream (1996). Is this the fate of all pop culture revolutions – to end as pathetic re-runs of themselves?
© Adrian Martin January 2001