Welcome to another addition of Terror Team-Up, where I rope in a respected member of the horror community to help me (a tolerated member of said community) as I defend a film that either gets a bum rap or is simply not given enough love. I have lots of potential titles in mind, but it's all about finding both the time and the perfect person to help me out, so I don't get to run them as often as I'd like. Hopefully that will change over time.
However, I never thought I'd be able to include Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows in the series, because it would require someone I wasn't sure existed: a respected member of the horror community to help me defend it. Alas, I am blessed with the friendship of Sam Zimmerman, a contributing editor for Fangoria (web and print editions) and karaoke legend. But even more important, a fellow fan of this loathed sequel that instantly killed a franchise - one that could have reached Paranormal Activity levels of success and popularity had more of us given it a chance when it was released in October of 2000, just a few days shy of Halloween. Sadly, it opened poorly (less than half of the original's wide release weekend take, despite playing on three times as many screens) and sank like a stone after. And it wasn't one of those films that gets missed in theaters and gets its due on home video - to this day it's hard to find anyone else that will go to bat for this movie. Some fans have even forgotten it existed.
But does it deserve the scorn? I took another look at it before we began writing the following email exchange, and I still say no, it does not. A flawed film to be sure, but an entertaining and interesting failure, which I will always prefer to forgettable cheap cash-ins. So without further ado...
BC: Sam, I can't remember the first time we chatted or met in person, but any doubts that you were an upstanding individual were erased the moment I discovered you were among the rarest of people: those who appreciate Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows, which instantly joined the ranks of Halloween III and Friday the 13th V in the "Unfairly Hated Horror Sequels" hall of fame. Obviously it's not a perfect film by any means, but I am 100% respectful of the approach Joe Berlinger took to what is a no-win situation: making a sequel to the original Blair Witch Project. The obvious idea is to have a group of would-be detectives grabbing some cameras and going into the woods to look for Heather, Josh, and Mike (dead or alive), but that would just be a typically dull, idea-free sequel that offered more of the same and satisfied no one beyond easily amused idiots. Successful or not, Berlinger did something that stayed true to his documentary roots, with a plot involving people who may or may not be responsible for the crimes they are being accused of committing, while expanding the already dense mythology of this story in the same way that the Sci-Fi specials, books and websites had done. To my eyes, Book of Shadows is another "Curse of the Blair Witch" or "The Secret Confession Of Rustin Parr" - if you want more to this world than a single film about three kids getting lost in the woods, it's there for you to enjoy.
But that's me. Before we get into the film's specifics, what is it that keeps you in this film's corner, against so many naysayers who come to say nay?
SAM: Well, I'm not going to say Book of Shadows holds a personal place in my heart that clouds my view of its quality, but I do think readers would like to know that when I saw the film theatrically in 7th grade, I had green hair (what an idiot!).
Quite a lot keeps me in the film's corner, though. There's a thin line between ineptness and creating an "off" atmosphere, and Blair Witch 2, despite they who say nay, actually finds that tone; a goofyweird Eurohorror-esque tint that's good for plenty of winces and laughs throughout. And in much the same way some of our favorite bits of "dated" genre make us smile, Blair Witch 2 is MARRED in some amazing late 90s/disaffected youth shit. Thermal underwear under shorts, over-emphatic Wiccans, early Queens of the Stone Age. This capsule-like quality adds to that "off" atmosphere, and watching it twelve years on, it feels even less real, giving the film its own little bubble. Plus, I've never seen anything that looks like Jeff's warehouse/bachelor pad.
BC: Green hair??? PICS OR IT DIDN'T HAPPEN. And thanks, now I feel old - I saw the film theatrically during my junior year of college.
I guess I DO have a bit of a personal connection to Book of Shadows, as its main character (Jeff Donovan, a long time before Burn Notice) is a huge fan of the film, and had I not lived 400 miles away I probably would have been one of the jerks descending upon Burkittsville to see the shooting locations. A few years ago on a road trip from MA to North Carolina I actually made a detour and went to the woods where they shot the first one, but was unable to find anything that looked familiar. So I sort of liked the idea of a sequel that was at least in part about the nutty fans. I bought all the books and watched the documentary specials, even did a parody film... it was the most gung ho I got about a horror property since Halloween.
You mentioned dating - re-watching the other day I actually was pleasantly surprised that it hadn't dated much at all. The soundtrack has some groaners (was this the first movie to feature a Nickelback song?), but when you stack it against the other horror films of the period (not the first Blair, which was a "period piece" anyway, taking place in 1994), but it's free of that slick, over-stylized approach of the post-Scream world that makes me roll my eyes almost every time I revisit a film from like 1997-2001 or so. And even though it's very much a post-modern film in that it takes place in the "real world" where Blair Witch is a hit movie, it's not overloaded with winking at the camera and hip references to other movies. One character makes fun of Heather's "confession" video (she goes up to the camera roughly in the same position, but makes a smirk instead of a snot bubble), but even references and callbacks to the first film are kept to a minimum.
Which leads me to one of the movie's more puzzling aspects - it plays it both ways. While everyone talks about going to see the movie, the characters also talk about the mythology (Rustin Parr, Elly Kedward, etc) as if it was real. If this was a way of presenting the characters as overly delusional fans (two of them are writing a book about the case), it doesn't quite work - I get that some over obsessive fans walked away thinking that BWP was a legitimate documentary about something that really happened, but the jig was up by now, and it'd be weird if our heroes were ALL still ignorant of the facts. But no one ever says "You know Rustin Parr never existed, right?" or something, which makes this a curious film in that it goes out of its way to say "Blair Witch Project was just a movie" while also following the story as any normal sequel would. Curious what you think about that - did it perhaps play a part in the film's failure, even subconsciously?
SAM: It's possible. I think the film itself is about playing it both ways. While Jeff is most charismatic, Blair Witch 2's core is Stephen and Tristen, the married couple writing a book on a subject they can't agree on, seemingly about how they can't agree. The film exists somewhere between the hysteria Stephen posits and the mythology no one denies. And hysteria is a funny word, considering I remember Blair Witch Project being a total event film (of which, like you I was so into). Pre-internet ticketing, there were lines, and trying not to get sold out and everyone was talking about it. Of course, its hype and furor got played out pretty quickly, which I think is the main contributing factor to the sequel's failure.
As far as dating, I don't mean it as a slight. The film is more diegetically dated then in any pop culture, or filmmaking sense.The attitudes and fashion feel of that time, and like the traits of the previous paragraph, help the movie exist on its own little weird plane.
One of my favorite parts about the movie is how its "scary bits" work. Their pagan symbol skin rashes are goofy, sure, but just the right shade of red and just the right look of irritating, that it's gross and a bit bothersome. Even the brief pieces of Jeff in an insane asylum, from the nose tube to the smoking doctors, are just so wacky and uncomfortable, they're not to be dismissed.
And of course, the revelation of their own found tapes is a glorious bit of insanity. Again, either collective hysteria or black magic rites, the image of Erica Leerhsen seated, dancing with the skull between her legs is pretty great, as is Tristen commanding them to run off and kill.
BC: Since you brought up the scary bits, I guess it's a good as place as any to talk about Artisan's demands on the film after Joe Berlinger turned in his rough cut. While he admirably did the reshoots himself (rather than walk and let some other guy do it), he was not happy with these new scenes or their placement in the film. Originally, there would be no "flash forward" footage in the film - the entire interrogation would occur at the film's end, and it would be only there that you discover the deaths of the other tour group. As his film played out originally, it was a slow burn horror film about a possible possession within the group, and the death of the "witch" Tristen would play out as a triumphant victory over the antagonist. Then BAM! We see the survivors being arrested for her death and the others, with video footage (most of which we've now seen in the theatrical cut) showing what actually happened throughout the film. It was still ambiguous as to whether or not they WERE the victims of some supernatural power, or merely suffering from a collective mental breakdown, but the events were presented in a different and, in my imagination, superior way. I don't dislike the idea of the flash forwards (on the commentary, Berlinger even admits one of them actually made a particular moment stronger), but I think the film would have been far more powerful in its original form.
The other additions were the closeup shots of the other group being murdered (worthless) as well as that psycho ward footage, which I think works fine on its own, but these scenes' placement throughout the film is rather random and doesn't really add much, particularly once the narrative gets going and we've already learned all they offer - that Jeff was in a mental ward. It certainly sets the mood nicely - that tube going up Jeff's nose STILL freaks me out after 5-6 viewings, and I love the doctor puffing away on his cigarette as he works, but after that, these bits serve no purpose. One might even confuse them as more flash-forwards, with Jeff being committed to the ward as a result of what he did to the tour group. Or for scamming people by selling them dirt and sticks. Dick.
But even though that stuff wasn't part of the design and is often intrusive, in general it adds to the fragmented, nearly psychotic viewing experience this film provides. I still remember being in that local multiplex, watching this insane movie playing alongside things like Meet The Parents and Pay It Forward, wondering if I was myself suffering through a shared delusion with a pretty packed crowd. And the DVD took it up a notch, with its silly "Secret of ESREVER" and insistence on playing scenes backwards to find clues or whatever the hell. Love it or hate it, it's up there with Halloween III and even Exorcist II as the biggest gambles ever taken on a major horror sequel, and I love that the DVD release catered to those few who dug what it was doing. Nowadays this thing would be dumped on disc without as much as a trailer while the producers scrambled to make a "proper" sequel before they lost the fans forever. Instead we get backwards scenes and a commentary from the director where he complains about the studio that's releasing it and even takes a few shots at the original film for good measure. I swear, his track is the reason that all commentaries have that disclaimer now, where they stress that the person's thoughts are their own and don't reflect the opinion of the studio or its partners.
SAM: I've still only just heard about this glorious commentary, as it's astonishingly hard to find a physical copy of Blair Witch 2 these days. I guess a Blu with Director's Cut intact is in order, for all five of us that would buy it. I almost feel bad for loving the weird, inserted hospital stuff. But I can freely admit the close-up stabbings are a great example of what doesn't work in the movie, alongside the backwards walking ghost of who I imagine is Eileen Treacle; a jolt scare that cannot transcend its silliness.
Someone who does transcend silliness though, is Lanny Flaherty, who puts in an all-timer performance in the pantheon of asshole sheriffs. Blair Witch 2 becomes immediately more fun whenever Flaherty is on screen, sounding like his throat is constipated and he just. has. to. push. every. word. out. These little affectations, like Erica's manic chanting, are part of what makes the movie so entertaining. I can't imagine Berlinger's original cut ever qualifying as slow burn because everyone involved is playing to the back row.
BC: Haha, well by "slow burn" I mean "nothing happens", but in a nice way. Again, without these bloody closeups and other alterations, Berlinger's original cut had next to no violence at all, and only in its final moments do we see the extent of what happened that night, whereas in the theatrical there was almost nothing left to show by then.
But yes, that sheriff is just on some next level shit I wouldn't even attempt to comprehend. Rumor has it Nic Cage saw this guy's performance and said "Jeez, dial it back a little." On the commentary (sorry to keep tantalizing you!) Berlinger reveals something interesting - the character was at least in part inspired by none other than John Mark Byers, the colorful, hateful stepfather of one of the murdered boys from his Paradise Lost documentaries, who at the time was considered a suspect in the murders himself (it's a major element of Paradise Lost 2, which was released the same year as BW2). Byers is a real life person who overacts, so Flaherty had the unenviable position of playing the cartoonish version of a cartoon. I forgot all about the goofy scene where he waves at them from the crime scene as they watch the broadcast on TV - it's like a sitcom scene that inexplicably pops into the climax of a horror film's second act. I also enjoyed the creepy lady at the general store who has filled her basket with canned ham, and the lady who sells rocks from her backyard... the movie starts off by saying Burkittsville is a normal town that wants all these weirdo horror movie fans to go away, but then they go about making it look like Twin Peaks.
Obviously we can go on and on all day about this movie, as it practically begs for discussion and multiple viewings, with so many strange elements and things that are never explained (the fallen bridge and destroyed van are particular headscratchers), but let's leave some for the comment section, as I suspect our readers will have plenty to say. But before we wrap it up, anything else you'd like to address?
SAM: The main thing that blows my mind about Blair Witch 2 is that both the police station and Jeff's warehouse/pad both have those bridge entrances. I've never seen that before in my life. Folks in Maryland, tell me that's real.
It's also funny Paradise Lost hadn't been brought up until now, mainly since Damien Echols was accused of murder because of his own weird interests. As Berlinger had a huge hand in helping popular opinion shift to their innocence, it's strange that the non-supernatural reading of Blair Witch 2 would indicate a bunch of psychos are drawn to a horror movie and thusly inspired.
And you're absolutely right about the oddness of Burkittsville, a direct line to the aspect that none of the mythology is denied, just the original film.
Ultimately, I'm sure folks will stick to their guns on this one, but I'm glad you also find Blair Witch 2 to be a weird, fun little movie that gets a lot more shit than it deserves.
BC: Agreed 100% - this wasn't even the worst horror film to come out that fall (Lost Souls, anyone?). And you're right, we should have talked about Paradise Lost a bit more, but maybe we can save that ammo for the presumed battle ahead. And thank you so much for joining this edition of Terror Team Up!