Editor's note: A few weeks ago the critic disappeared inside a preview screening of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the sequel to The Blair Witch Project. His notebook was found shortly thereafter. The following review was assembled from his notes.
Whatever you've heard, the most profitable $30,000 movie in history does not, in fact, owe its success to a clever Web site, however much this idea might comfort Hollywood or flatter those who design clever Web sites. The people who gave themselves over to The Blair Witch Project last summer were no more sucklings of hype than you were when you inhaled your first marshmallow at a campfire "Boo!" It was a new kind of scare. And if some critics didn't get it, good for them; lots of critics didn't get Psycho, either, and I'm sure they slept much better for it.
Movie horror, remember, lies in being helpless to save characters you identify with. Critical horror lies in being helpless to influence audiences you don't. Ergo the backlash. And now comes a sequel so aggressively and self-consciously bad that the backlash will thank its lucky deep-woods stars. Box-office horror, it turns out, lies in being helpless to make lightning strike twice. So while Artisan Entertainment might want to repeat the Phenomenon with another low-budget genre-buster, the company predictably bred a more bloated offspring of its cash cow instead. Hence the cheeseburger Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a Scream-like meta-sequel to the least ironic drive-in movie ever made.
It might be taken as an inauspicious sign that, at least according to rumor, Artisan handed exec-producer credits to the original film's directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, then told the pair to back off creatively. (As if the biggest winners in the Zeitgeist lotto since Nirvana needed a cash bonus!) But director Joe Berlinger begins the film promisingly enough, mounting a series of fake infotainment clips about Blair-mania and its effect on residents in the movies' real-life setting of Burkittsville, Maryland.
For the Blair-oblivious, the original presented itself as a documentary assembled from raw footage found in the woods just outside town, ostensibly shot by three film students who went missing there. Now Berlinger turns our attention to a visibly stoned young dreamboat (Jeffrey Donavan) who sells crappy Blair merchandise on eBay. And even before this stock type leads an assortment of other stock types on a "Blair Witch Hunt" through the woods (camping equipment and video cameras provided), fans might feel hustled themselves.
For one thing, Berlinger primes us for parody, cranking some metal on the soundtrack as the camera swoops over the Maryland forests (a gesture lifted wholly from the erstwhile documentarian's Paradise Lost). But the characters, who represent various imagined demographics for the film (bookish couple, sexy wiccan, psychic goth chick), only have lines that go clunk in the night. And you know all is lost when, having blacked out during their first night in the woods, the tourists rush over to the guide's home editing console to watch the tapes. This contrivance plays on the first film's sole conceit: that three young filmmakers lost in the woods and fearing for their lives would keep videotaping everything anyway.
But Blair worked because we already know the distancing effect that video can have on everything from family squabbles to sex. And the effect was exactly the opposite for the audience, which read the horror as somehow more real for being handheld. Thus, Book of Shadows seeks to blow our gullible little minds by letting its ghosts manipulate (gasp) the videotape!
What a stupid gimmick! And... Hey, what's that noise coming from the back of the theater?