Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
dir. Joe Berlinger
Opens Fri Oct 27 at the Metro and others.

HERE ARE A FEW things you might consider doing instead of seeing the Blair Witch Project sequel: bleaching your nose hair, shaving your feet, experimenting with RU-486, or watching Alf reruns. Trust me: This film is so bad, no amount of high-priced marketing tools--glitzy trailers, live webcasts, star-studded soundtrack CDs--can save it. And the motivation behind this dreck is all too clear: pure and simple greed.

Director Joe Berlinger earned renown as a documentary filmmaker for My Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost, and Revelations (the Paradise Lost sequel), all of which he made with co-director Bruce Sinofsky. On his own for Book of Shadows, though, Berlinger takes a mighty big fall. On paper, the self-referential premise of the film might sound intriguing: A bunch of Blair Witch Project groupies pay to go on a tour of the infamous Black Hills of Burkittsville, Maryland to see the sites from their favorite movie. Constant references are made to The Blair Witch Project, including a joke on "How many Heather Donahues does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Just like in the first film, though, the characters' obsession with documenting their experiences eventually turns against them, and the film ultimately becomes something akin to a dream sequence, where no one knows what's real and what's not.

Berlinger doesn't hold back from capitalizing on his previous documentary experience in the fictional Book of Shadows: The entire opening sequence is straight out of the Paradise Lost films, with sweeping aerial views, gothic-lettered credits, thundering heavy-metal music, and humorous (though in this case, fake) man-in-the-street interviews. Berlinger even put out a casting call for the female goth character under the name of "Domini Von Teer." The very real Domini Teer was the girlfriend of Damien Echols--and the mother of his child--in the first Paradise Lost documentary. (Echols remains on death row for three so-called "Satanic" murders that he almost certainly didn't commit, and this crass exploitation--a movie with characters who simply don't remember the crimes they've committed--probably won't help Echols or the two other boys convicted of the 1993 West Memphis, Arkansas child murders.)

But the success of Paradise Lost can't help Berlinger now. Virtually everything in Book of Shadows is so atrociously executed that any high-minded ideas are lost. The scenes of horrific mental-patient abuse were ripped straight out of Titicut Follies--a critically acclaimed 1967 documentary on a Massachusetts mental hospital. As the psychological problems of the affected character are never explored in Book of Shadows, this footage seems ridiculously out of place and entirely self-serving for Berlinger. The remaining characters are all cardboard caricatures, from the airheaded Wiccan babe (the only provider of gratuitous nudity) to the Deliverance-style sheriff, and the amateur acting has the feel of a high school play. The attempts at re-creating the annoying but believable bickering among the characters in The Blair Witch Project fail miserably--the film just doesn't take the time to convey the level of frustration these people supposedly have with each other. Instead, we get disorienting jump cuts ranging from MTV-style party scenes to cheap slasher-film suspense. There's no real psychological drama, no inexplicable creepiness, none of that Jesus-why-am-I-so-scared brilliance.

The film was shot in a mere 44 days, and it shows. When told that he must run a video backward to find out what really happened to his afflicted group, one of the characters says, "But that doesn't make any sense!" This elicited much snickering from the audience at the screening I attended--a perfectly appropriate commentary on the absurd script. One pointless scene seems to exist only to support the product placement of Pete's Wicked Ale; another simply to showcase a Queens of the Stone Age song.

The creators of the first Blair Witch film, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, are serving only as "creative consultants" for Book of Shadows, but will be back on board for Blair Witch 3, the "prequel." Clearly, everyone's just in it for the money now. The sheer conceit of planning so many sequels is staggering. But really, there won't be anything left after this Hindenburg goes down. Had the original Blair Witch Project been left alone, it would have retained a long shelf life as a refreshingly creative independent film. With the current media saturation, however, the public will just want to puke at the words "Blair Witch."

As for Berlinger, this entire film feels like an audition for a music video, or maybe an X-Files episode, so perhaps that's where he should next direct his ambitions. Back in 1996, he told our then film editor, Andy Spletzer, "Yeah, we'll sell out one of these days." How prophetic.

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