BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2
Let's face it: There was plenty of built-in expectation with the arrival of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, and the expectation was that the film would suck. Those who loved The Blair Witch Project, as I did, would miss that film's cinéma vérité style and simplicity, and rail on about how Book of Shadows was exactly the kind of dumbed-down splatter flick that Blair Witch rebelled against. Those who hated the original, which seems the more common response (at least among my acquaintances), would have their beliefs confirmed that the whole Blair Witch "mythology" is lame, and that we've been hoodwinked by marketing and Internet paranoia into making these movies hits. Wouldn't it be great to report that this sequel had defied its skeptics and emerged as smashing entertainment?
Yeah, it would. Trouble is, the movie is terrible. It's terrible, though, for some interesting reasons. Book of Shadows is by no means your standard Hollywood follow-up; it takes some chances, and it shows a sense of humor about the original's popularity. The film is a mess, but not entirely worthless. In the interest of keeping you from having to sit through it yourselves, I'll try to explain why.
Its initial premise is clever: The film opens with faux-documentary footage about how The Blair Witch Project became a sensation, sending hundreds of fans scurrying to Burkittsville, Maryland, to retrace the footsteps of lost campers Heather, Mike, and Josh. Many of the locals are peeved by the publicity, but a few are taking full advantage of it by selling stick figures, rocks, and other everyday items as "official" Blair Witch merchandise. There are even tour buses that'll take you to where parts of Blair Witch were shot, and Book of Shadows concerns one such group, a five-person expedition led by Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), who - as seen through flashback - once spent time in a loony bin. (In this context, "loony bin" is not a politically incorrect term; as filmed by director/co-writer Joe Berlinger, the asylum scenes are more baroque than anything in Marat/Sade.) The movie shows this quintet discovering that the horrors of The Blair Witch Project were quite real; something in the Maryland woods doesn't want them there, and is ready to drive this group mad or even kill them to keep its secrets intact.
If you're familiar with Berlinger's sterling documentary work, particularly Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, you can see at once what brought him to this project. Book of Shadows, at first, deals explicitly with one of his favorite themes: the irrational hatred and fear that "normal" people have against those who are different. (Among the leads are a Wiccan, played by Erica Leerhsen, and a black-clad Goth gal, Kim Director. Combine them and you have the accused, probably innocent, Damien Echols in Paradise Lost.) When the film focuses on this issue, and shows how the community and the quintet itself begin to distrust one another when "supernatural" acts begin occurring, it's on to something pretty important, and pretty scary. And despite the clumsiness of the staging and general ineptitude of the performers, it's a strong enough idea to sustain your interest for quite a while.
And then? We're treated to about an hour of "was that real or was it a dream?" sequences, in which members of the tour group start turning against each other (or do they?) and their omnipresent video cameras record (or do they?) a series of strange, bloody, MTV-esque clips of murder and debauchery. Part of Blair Witch's appeal was its refusal to explain things; that gave it its queasy air of realism. Book of Shadows doesn't explain things, either, but with its higher-grade production values and more elaborate plotting, that just makes it all the more frustrating. (The biggest thing it doesn't explain is its own title; not only is there no true "witch," but I'll be damned if there's a "book of shadows" in the picture, either.) Anything can happen in this film, and does, but the storytelling has no momentum and the characters (and performers) are ciphers, so the "shock" sequences have no weight. By the time we get to the movie's "truth" - where we see what actually happened in the woods (or ... yawn ... did it?) - it turns out to be as convoluted as everything else we've sat through, and we couldn't care less.
As he's proved in previous films, Berlinger has a talent for ominousness, but ominousness without a payoff proves to be a sickly thing. And it seems almost perverse for this man, who gave the woods in Paradise Lost a truly horrific feel (even the helicopter shots travelling over them, which this movie steals, were rather chilling), to spend the film's last 45 minutes trapped in a media-age version of a haunted house, with the only illumination coming from a series of video cams. Book of Shadows starts out smart and ends up as dumb as any other quickie designed to make a few bucks on Halloween weekend. Preparations have already been made for a third Blair Witch installment; after audiences get through with this one, will anyone still care?
When director Nora Ephron refers to Lucky Numbers as her "dark" comedy, is she referring to the cinematography? The movie, which deals with a couple of TV jackasses (John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow) and their attempts to fix the Pennsylvania State Lottery, does have a few murderous twists and a liberal smattering of the f-word, but the lighting is so crummy that you're literally kept in the dark during many of the film's more important scenes. Which, if you think about it, isn't really such a bad thing, because what we do see on the screen isn't worth watching anyway.
Working from an unfunny script by Adam Resnick, Ephron displays her usual obviousness, making judgments about everyone we see on the screen and amplifying their character traits to make sure even the most dim-witted of us knows what's going on. It's bad enough that she has encouraged Travolta to overplay his comic schmuckiness to the rafters (he portrays a hugely popular local weatherman, but his phony "charm" would make any civilized person egg him on the street), but she has made the entire cast look equally foolish, and that includes Kudrow, Chris Kattan, Ed O'Neill, Bill Pullman, Michael Moore, Daryl Mitchell, and Richard Schiff. (Only Michael Rapaport and Tim Roth emerge relatively unscathed.) With the exception of one beautiful sight gag involving a truck skidding on a snowy road, I don't think there's a laugh in the movie; Lucky Numbers might be about crooks, but it's the ill treatment of good performers that's truly criminal.