So, like, I’m dreaming, okay? And in my dream, I need a car. But all I have in my pocket is fifty bucks. So I find a parked car that looks like it’s worth about that much, and drive off in it. But I also leave my fifty in the car’s passenger seat to compensate the owner when he or she comes back.
No, that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. But it’s a dream, so it doesn’t have to. And in my opinion, any half-baked horror movie should work exactly the same way. That’s why Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows’ best moments are also its most contradictory and ill-thought out. It’s an idiotic, cynical, and cliched attempt to cash in on the original movie’s lucrative name, yes. Still, it’s occasionally capable of doing what effective splatter movies do, which is to thwart your expectations, and make you jump in your seat a time or two. If you’re particularly willing to suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride, however bumpy, BW2 might even pay you back with the horror movie’s ultimate reward: it might momentarily freak you out.
Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows
Jeffrey Donovan, Tristen Ryler, Stephen Turner, Kim Director, Erica Leerson (none of whom was ever heard from again)
The movie’s first few moments are a setup for a completely decentered and ridiculous experience. In fact, if you go to BW2 having only seen the movie’s eerie, red-filtered-camera-floating-over-creepy-woods preview, you might suspect that you’ve stumbled into the wrong theater by mistake. This is because it begins not with the icky, blood-soaked prologue you might expect, but with several minutes of screwball fake-umentary. It’s the sort of vision Chris Guest aspires to: throngs of middle Americans, at their most ignorant and broadly stereotyped, descend upon the unsuspecting town of Burkittsville in the wake of the Blair Witch phenomenon, occasionally stopping to share their overly canny and simplistic opinions with the camera. (Example: “There are some naysayers,” one Blair Witch fanatic enthuses, “who come and they say nay.” Not the sharpest wooden stake in the breastbone, this guy.)
A hick sheriff (Lanny Flaherty) makes an appearance, too, demanding through a megaphone that a crowd of backpacking sightseers disperse. “There is no got-damn Blair Witch!” he drawls, annoyed. But the backpackers ignore him, bent as they are on seeing where Heather, Josh, and Mike launched their always-already-posthumous film careers. This may be where BW2 intersects most conspicuously with its promotional juggernaut: the original film blurs reality by setting itself in a real-life place (there is a Burkittsville, Maryland, of course, and The Blair Witch Project rocketed one of my lesser alma maters, Montgomery College, to perhaps undeserved national fame), and Burkittsville’s hapless townsfolk were, to some degree, beset by curiosity-seekers in the wake of the original movie.
Once BW2 establishes its intention not to take itself at all seriously, it abruptly starts taking itself very seriously. Slapstick humor segues into a grim credit sequence accompanied by a montage of miscellaneous, gory bludgeonings and skewerings, straitjacketed lunatics in padded rooms, and that red-filtered aerial shot of the Burkittsville woods. At the moment none of this makes much sense, but over the course of the movie, it all crystallizes as backstory. The lad in the straitjacket is Jeff Patterson (Jeffrey Donovan), an entrepreneurial Blair Witch tourguide and huckster of manufactured Blair Witch baubles, who has a history of mental illness and institutionalization. He is driving into the Burkittsville woods with an entourage of teen and twenty-something Blair Witch researchers and the idly curious: there are Stephen and Tristen (Stephen Turner and Tristen Ryler), a newlywed couple with a baby on the way, who have been assigned to write a book about the Blair Witch; gothy Kim (Kim Director), who seems to have some kind of ESP and is first seen lying on the tombstone of one Eileen Treacle, involved in the Blair Witch legacy; and Erica (Erica Leerson), a proper Wiccan who frequently and pedantically lectures the crew (and, presumably, us) on witchcraft’s true nature as a pagan religion, worshipping nature rather than Satan. They’re an iconic crew, more stereotypes than recognizable personalities, and it’s fairly clear to any slasher-movie vet who will play what role in the horror that gradually ensues. For instance, Tristen is ambivalent about her baby, which means that she will eventually miscarry, and her relationship with Stephen will be sorely tried as the spirits of the unjustly murdered torment the crew.
All the mayhem gets underway, finally, after the quintet camps at the site of a long-past pagan ceremony and the obsessive Jeff sets up video cameras pointing every witch way. When a group of foreign tourists interrupts, Jeff and his compatriots send them off to a place called Coffin Rock by concocting a story about there being something paranormal there. But the next morning, all the group’s video cameras have been destroyed, and Tristen and Stephen’s papers have mysteriously been shredded and are drifting down snowily on the just-waking crew. The group later discovers that the tourists they sent goosechasing to Coffin Rock have been gruesomely murdered, and that the hick sheriff suspects them, particularly Jeff, of the crime. They find their tapes hidden under a pile of stones, much the way Heather, Josh, and Mike’s footage was stashed in the original movie. By now a bit alarmed, they scurry off to Jeff’s stolen-goods warehouse and video lab (which is housed in an abandoned broom factory, not that that’s meant to be symbolic of anything) to review the footage, to try to figure out what happened the night before.
It should be noted that the movie reveals all this completely out of chronological order, jumping more or less randomly from the campground to the broom factory, to a series of police interrogation rooms where the group is subsequently split up for questioning after all of this has transpired, to the hospital where Tristen miscarries. Peppered sporadically throughout are the viddies of tolchoking and ultraviolence that first appear in the opening credits and flashbacks to Jeff’s institutionalization. This spasmodic storytelling style mirrors the footage the group reviews once they get back to the broom factory and things start getting really weird: several hours have been lost from the tape (as they recognize by observing a running clock on the screen’s top-left corner); a tree, enormous when they make camp, has reverted to a tiny sapling during the night, then back again; and at several points either the tape runs in reverse, or the real-time events it chronicles do. In what may be the movie’s most boldly illogical moment, the tape shows Tristen, possessed by some poorly defined apparition, hiding the tapes in the rocks. Like my screwy joyriding dream, this demands that an object be in two places at once.
However, if you catch yourself getting bogged down in practical concerns—such as wondering, perfectly reasonably, how in the hell videotapes can videotape themselves—you’re not going to have any fun at all. Did I suddenly wake up, thinking that I can hardly drive off in the car and at the same leave it there for its owner to find, with my crisp dream-fifty left in the passenger seat? Hell, no. I just kept driving.