The woods are full of horror stories. Cities, of course, harbor anonymous knife-wielding stalkers and the burbs have their share of mask-wearing childhood-trauma victims, but it’s the creep-you-out woods where the most awful and unknowable monsters tend to hang out. When you wander into the woods like Hansel and Gretel or Dorothy and Scarecrow you’re on the monsters’ turf, which decreases the odds of your survival or even finding your way home. Not to mention that the typical monster in the woods is a woman made knotty with rage and vengeance, that is, a witch.
This frightful woods trick is a primary reason for the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the movie-phenomenon that made a bijillion unexpected dollars and put Artisan on the map. The brilliant marketing strategy run most effectively and ground-breakingly on the Internet presented the film as a “real” documentary, culled from footage left behind by three Blair Witch-hunting college students who never came back from their trek into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, and bolstered by “research” which resulted assorted ancillary texts, like books, diaries, and copies of Josh’s audio mixtape. That thousands of cultish fans journeyed to the movie’s supposed location, trolling for BW trophies and upsetting the natives, underlined the film’s effected “reality.” Or maybe it just underlined some folks’ desire to hang out in the woods, to test fate and drink beer.
Now comes BW2 (also called Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2), which picks up, not at the end of the first film, but after another spate of murders, supposedly inspired by the first film, or rather, inspired by the silly hysteria the first film generated . Aware of this silliness, BW2 begins with “reports” on fans’ invasion by MTV’s Kurt Loder and NBC’s Chuck Scarborough, then introduces the characters it will track through the Black Hills National Forest in November of 1999. It doesn’t introduce them exactly one-by-one, though, more as a group of victims-to-be, the way that slasher films do it, giving you just enough time to know their nbames but not feel particularly close to any of them. The adventurers are led by their entrepreneurial guide Jeff Patterson (Jeffrey Donovan), whose van is inscribed BW-HUNT.COM, and who makes a meager living by selling stickmen and “Blair dirt.” He’s also been institutionalized with some vague and ominous breakdown, intimated early on by sharply-edited flashbacks that show him wearing a strait-jacket, bouncing off padded walls, and having a puke-greenish fluid sent down his nose via a tubing practice that looks monsterish and entirely invasive. In the Sci Fi Channel’s “documentary” aired 22 October and focused on Jeff’s trial for multiple murders interviewees say he’s been adversely affected by the first movie. At the same time, however, several of these same interviewees (who include an arresting officer, a police profiler, Jeff’s own attorney, and the prosecutor) evince interest in the upcoming sequel, “based on” these events in which they’ve had a part. Everyone wants his fifteen minutes.
In BW2, Jeff’s history is revealed in ziggy, nearly unreadable spurts (which might give you some insight into his general state of mind), alongside flashforwards that depict him and surviving members of his tour group under police interrogation for murder, so you know that this does not end well. BW2 begins with townie interviews and shots of the Sheriff Cravens (Lanny Flaherty) telling the flocking fans to “get out of the woods.” Paying him no mind and ignoring the hundreds of horror movies past that have espoused precisely the same warning, Jeff’s group assembles: a married couple, Tristen and Stephen (Tristen Ryler and Stephen Turner), who are writing a book (“Blair Witch: History or Hysteria,” investigating the phenomenon of collective hysteria becoming truth); Erica (Erica Leerson), a wiccan who wants to clear her religion’s name (“The great American pastime,” she notes, “Blame it on a witch”); and surly goth-girl Kim (Kim Director), who has an uncanny ability for seeing slightly into the future. Kim never really understands what she’s seeing (which makes her a little too much like Angel‘s Cordelia [Charisma Carpenter], suffering demon-visions and then whining about their inscrutability), but she knows that the news again isn’t good. Once they arrive at their campsite, they run into another tour group, whom they mock and send off to look at Coffin Rock, pretending they’ve seen evidence of the witch there, further into the woods. The fact that this group turns up dead and arranged in exactly the same way as the first group of witch-hunters found dead at Coffin Rock (see: the lore, the website, the first movie), is creepy and trite at the same time, like most everything else in BW2.
This creepy-and-triteness does make a point beyond itself, and beyond the pleasure viewers might take in pointing out homages (Sheriff Cravens’ name for one obvious example), BW in-jokes, and allusions to many previous horror movies, not to mention inconsistencies (and these are legion). The film is also taking issue with the increasingly common idea that violent media cause violent behaviors, and raising questions about the effects that supposedly non-violent media (say, press coverage) have both on subjects and viewers.
These issues and questions arise first with the tour group, who, spending the night near the spot where Heather’s notorious footage was “found,” spend some time drinking and smoking and generally reveling in their disbeliefs and mini-cynicisms. (It’s so obviously a bad decision to stay overnight in the woods that no one even bothers to discuss it.) Though they plan to stay awake all night, they don’t of course. After a little montagey business showing their merry-making, the film fades out and opens again as they wake the next morning to find their camera equipment destroyed and Stephen’s notes falling all over them in an eerie paper-shreddy snow. They also find their videotapes hidden much like Heather’s footage was, and oh dear, they’re clearly in trouble. Not only have they lost precious hours of time, they have also become anxious and testy with one another. Decidedly spooked, they head back to Jeff’s place, an abandoned broom factory (how clever), where they use his computers to look at their tapes, hoping to piece together their lost night. The tape is a mess, showing Erica dancing naked round a tree and other images that no one can recall having witnessed or done. Plus, it appears that the time on the tape is running backwards, or maybe it’s forwards with gaps it’s confusing. Jeff plants himself in front of his cool array of monitors and keyboards and digital editing decks, and the others go off to quarrel, observe special-effected ghosty things, and occasionally pass through with observations that only enhance the apparent mystery. They find marks on their bodies and behave badly with one another (this involves some flirting, some sex that may or may not happen, and some very mean language). It’s not long before they conclude that, as Erica puts it, “We’ve brought something back with us!”
As the Blair Witch has her way with the group one by one, BW2 turns partly cheesy and nonsensical like a slasher film and partly, like BW1, emotional and visceral, with disquieting depictions of grisly violence. To its credit, the sequel makes its boys as witchified as its girls, unlike the first film, which laid much “blame” on Heather (who had a little too much interest in and sympathy for the witch, and infamously performed that blame in her twitchy-up-closey-nose-runny confession). The group members believe the tapes will reveal some truth, but BW2 argues that all media are subjective and unreliable: “reality” is a hoax.
In this regard, the movie shows a particular interest in exploitative media namely, so-called news much like director Joe Berlinger’s previous work with Bruce Sinofsky, the documentaries Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, all examining the press frenzies surrounding murders that took place in the woods, and the swift judgments passed on apparent offenders, both by outsiders and by denizens of those rural areas. In BW2, the victims (the kids murdered) and aggressors (the kids arrested for murder) are not so much affected by the Blair Witch (who may or may not exist) as they are by mass media, which create their own indecipherable and ill-tempered “woods” of meaning and meanness. It’s at this level that BW2 is most cagey and smart, and quite rewarding. But it’s a harrowing and occasionally unpleasant ride, twisting familiar slasher effects (lewd insinuations, venomous violations, gory murders, naked girls) into a hybrid celebration and indictment of same.