Friday, May 11, 2018

It's that sexy Jeffrey Donovan's 50th birthday, so I thought I'd review the film that made him famous: Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows.

WARNING: Spoilers toward the bottom

Let me say up front: This is a good cast, and for the most part all of them turn in somewhat strong performances. The film is visually almost sumptuous, with excellent production design and very good cinematography and editing. Although the Carter Burwell score is generic, I very much liked the sound design.

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The runaway success of the supernatural horror film The Blair Witch Project led the film's distributor, Artisan Entertainment (now defunct), to immediately commission a sequel even though the original filmmakers were both uninterested in and had no story for one.

Artisan hired documentary film director Joe Berlinger to helm the movie. Berlinger had broken out in 1992 with the documentary Brother's Keeper, about an illiterate, rural elderly man who engages in the mercy killing of his ailing older brother. His 1996 documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, documented the railroading of three Goth teenagers for the sodomization, murder, and mutilation of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The documentary aired on HBO, and won Berlinger a Prime Time Emmy.

By December 1999, Berlinger finishing work on a sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, when he was tapped to direct Blair Witch 2. Less than six months had passed since the release of Blair Witch, and the first film was still in theaters.

There's a lot more behind this cut...........

Berlinger has given various reasons for coming up with the story he filmed. Originally, he said he wanted to illustrate how the "lazy consumption" of mass media had led people to believe the first film was a documentary. The public is too ready to believe that if it's filmed, it "must be real" (he argued), and he wanted BW2 to be about how a purely human murderer managed to fool people into believing there was a supernatural element at work. He also wanted to show how the first film's success had influenced the town of Burkittsville. Berlinger drew on Luigi Pirandello's 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author as well as his on "Paradise Lost" documentaries for inspiration.

In other interviews, Berlinger and co-writer Dick Beebe said they wanted to make a psychological thriller about mass hysteria, not a horror film.

More recently, however, Berlinger has said that he wanted to make a "meta-narrative" film that showed how meaningless sequels were.

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Casting took six weeks. Berlinger chose actors who showed great chemistry with one another. Four of the actors who ended up with starring roles -- Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristine Skyler, and Stephen Barker Turner -- auditioned for the role they didn't get. Donovan, for example, was cast as witch-hunter "Jeffrey Patterson" because his personality was so much stronger than that of Stephen Barker Turner. Tristine Skyler (who played "Tristen Ryler") originally auditioned for the role of pastor's-kid-turned-Wiccan "Erica Greerson", while Erica Leehrsen (who played "Erica Greerson") auditioned for the role of Goth girl "Kim Diamond".

Principal photography took place over 44 days in the spring of 2000 near Baltimore, Maryland. Gwynns Falls Park/Leakin Park served as the location of the camping scenes. The ruins of the Rustin Parr house (constructed out of styrofoam) were also shot there. An abandoned psychiatric hospital in Baltimore stood in for a similar facility on film. The Clipper Mill in Baltimore provided exterior shots of Jeffrey's house. Interviews with Burkittsville residents took place in Burkittsville.

Because the original film had been parodied for its use of shaky camera footage, Berlinger opted to avoid that for his sequel.

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The script begins with an eight-minute long prologue in which each of the four main characters addresses the camera or an interviewer and lightheartedly discuss their interest in the Blair Witch myth. The night spent in the woods is given minimal time on screen, with most of the film focusing on the four main characters slowly going insane over the next few days. This lengthy segment was intended to be written, directed, and acted in a highly ambiguous manner, with the audience (and the characters) never sure if something was actually happening or not, or whether they were being driven insane by a human being or by a supernatural force. The film ended with an eight-minute epilogue in which each of the psychologically disturbed survivors tries to explain what happened even as they are confronted by video footage showing "the truth" of what really happened.

Artisan was unhappy with the film, believing it to be non-commercial. This was the first time Berlinger had directed a fiction film, had he no control over the final cut. Just weeks prior to BW2's release, Berlinger gathered his cast in his back yard to enact the scene in which the four main characters terrorize and disembowel the foreign tourists. Berlinger also shot new footage of "Jeffrey Patterson" in the psychiatric hospital. (This footage was shot at the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center on Randall's Island in New York City.)

Artisan also ordered the film re-edited. The bookends were now scattered throughout the film, as was footage of the satanic ritual, orgy, Erica's tree-dance, and the murders of the tourists. Flash-cuts were used because this was felt to be more startling and drew the audience into the film (as they puzzled about what they'd just seen).

One more change was made as well. Berlinger wanted to have Frank Sinatra's Witchcraft run beneath the opening credits, to lull the audience into thinking the film was a goofy romp. Artisan replaced the song with Disposable Teens by Marilyn Manson.

Berlinger did not want to insert the new footage or re-edit the film. He thought the edits removed the ambiguity he had pushed for, and undermined the linear story he wanted to tell about a bunch of lighthearted ghost-hunters slowly descending into madness.

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Let's take the film as it is, not as Berlinger wanted it.

Frankly, BW2 is no Blair Witch. Although Berlinger now says otherwise, at the time BW2 came out he was highly critical of the faux-documentary style and the shaky camerawork -- which he felt "lied" to people. He heartily disliked the fact that audiences saw such cinematic tricks as "real documentary footage", when actual documentarians worked hard to avoid such cliches. He seemed to feel that the pseudo-documentary feel of Blair Witch achieved the film's aims through cheating and fooling the audience rather than through good writing, directing, acting, and editing.

But Berlinger seems to have missed the whole point of The Blair Witch Project, which was to deflate the engorged balloon of Hollywood horror (big budget, glossy filmmaking, costly FX). Oddly, Berlinger seems to have chosen to deflate Blair Witch itself, using the Blair Witch mythos. That's dangerous ground, undermining and mocking your source material. Had Berlinger made a film about four people going ghost-hunting, without all the Blair Witch overlay, it's possible he would have been more successful. Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer were far more successful on poking fun at and trading on the tropes of horror.

BW2 doesn't seem to live up to its billing, either. For a horror film, there's precious little at stake. Look at the story beats: Morning at the Parr house with research materials scattered; Tristen seeing the backward-walking girl; the video footage of Erica dancing backwards around the tree; Erica breaking out in an occult rash; Kim swerving to miss some ghostly children in the street; Kims' discovery of the bloody nail file in her bag; the controvery over how damaged Jeffrey's van is; Erica's disappearance; the off-screen death of the tourists; the collapse (or not) of the bridge over the ravine outside Jeffrey's house; the confrontation over the dossiers; the discovery of Erica's body; the hanging of Tristen. Does that sound like "building suspense"? Does that sound like "descent" into madness? All of that is mysterious, some of it creepy. But there's no real movement in the film. No accelerating feel to it. No actual horror.

The film seems to have a love-hate relationship with horror. This is an R-rated film, but there is very little on-screen violence (just Tristen's hanging scene). Violence plays such a minor part in this film that I have to wonder if the director really wanted any of it there. It has to be there, I guess, because Tristen's death has to be depicted in order for the video footage at the end of the movie to make sense. (This is the footage which shows Stephen hanging his wife as she pleads for her life, contrary to what the audience saw earlier). Similarly, we have to see Kim going to the convenience store and leaving. (Footage at the end of the film shows her slashing the convenience store cashier's throat with the nail file.) Oddly, we never see Jeffrey interacting with Erica, even though footage at the end of the film shows him hiding her body.

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The real problem with the film is the "descent into madness", for it simply doesn't work.

I'm not sure why the interrogatory footage of the Burkittsville citizens is there at the beginning of the film, so let's ignore it.

The film starts out well enough, with the team waking in the morning to find their research scattered all over the ruins of the Parr house and Jeffrey's videotapes hidden in the home's wreckage. But the film then comes to a grinding, dead halt when Tristen miscarries and has to spend a couple hours in the hospital. There seems to point to this sequence. The cause of her miscarriage is never explained (the orgy she had with her husband and Jeffrey the night before? her lesbian interaction with Kim and Erica? her pot use? the witch's influence?), and the miscarriage doesn't figure into the remainder of the film at all.

This hospital sequence seems mostly to serve as a vehicle for Tristen to see a pale girl walking backward. The "reverse" theme is going to be beaten to death during the film. Over and over and over. Again and again and again and again. For a film which purports to be ambiguous, it BLATANTLY hammers home on the "reverse" theme.

That wasn't needed.

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The gang returns to Jeffrey's house, which is inexplicable given that Tristen and Stephen just had a miscarriage and should be mourning the loss of their child. Normal people would go home, but not these. And it's here that I should pause a moment and ask: What reasons does the film give the audience to care about these people? We're told that Jeffrey is an ex-psychiatric patient. But he's an arrogant prick and con-man, and completely unlikeable. Any sympathy we might have had for him is gone when we see how rich he is. We're told that Erica has rejected her family's Christian faith and become a Wiccan. But never are we shown that she grieves for this lost relationship, or that it has affected her. Kim is a Goth and psychic. Yet, at no point is she shown to have been bullied or ostracized for being different, and her psychic abilities certainly never figure into the narrative. Any chance to feel emotion for Stephen and Tristen for having lost a child is muffed as well.

A third of the way into the film, and the audience is given no reason to care that these five people might be facing danger, madness, or death. Blair Witch 2 becomes exactly what is wrong with Hollywood horror: It's nothing more than a fun-house ride, full of cheap scares and thrills with no real meaning. No emotion.

Back to the story: The first clue that something isn't right is dropped when the gang reviews the video footage retrieved earlier that day. All they get is static, except for a few flash-cuts of Erica swinging naked around a sapling planted in the middle of the ruins of the Parr house. Jeffrey is upset: No tree has ever existed there, but they saw a full-grown one the night before. And why is it a sapling in the video footage?

Erica -- freaked out by seeing something she does not remember doing -- goes to make some Wiccan prayers in another room. As she does so, her body breaks out in occult symbols. She moans that the team is marked for death. This is a complete red herring: In fact, only two people are marked for death (Erica and Tristen). Berlinger, who claims to be upset with the way The Blair Witch Project lied to audiences, now engages in his own cinematic lies. It's not just that he lies about everyone's coming death, but he uses cinematorgraphy, editing, narrative style, and more to lie to the audience. It's like he doesn't realize that cinema itself is false or heightened reality.

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Instead of heightening the tension some more and showing the characters descending further into madness, the film now takes another break. This is the sequence in which Goth girl Kim goes to town. There are two events here: In the first, Kim argues with the cashier in the convenience store. In the second, Kim swerves to miss some kids playing in the street at night, and dents the fender of Jeffrey's van when she runs into a tree.

The first event shows up later in the film, when law enforcement officials show Kim security camera footage of her encounter in the convenience store. In that footage, Kim is shown murdering the cashier with a nail file. Like the footage of Erica's nude tree-swinging, it is "proof" that Kim has become disassociated from reality.

Problems crop up again.

First, we don't actually learn about this death until the end of the film. So unlike Erica's footage (which has an immediate impact on Erica), Kim's scene lacks impact. Narratively, it deadens the film. It makes sense only at the end of the film -- but dramatically, it's a failure.

Second, why is Kim disassociated from reality? For the descent into madness trope to work, the audience has to be shown that it is happening. Imagine a film that is ninety minutes of five people having fun, only to have ten minutes of "security camera footage" at the end showing them actually on a killing spree. The audience would realize that when Jimmy opens a package of sausage with a knife, he's really gutting children. Or that when Susan has a drink of milk, she's drinking the blood of seven dead high school virgins. Yes, the audience would "get it" that the characters were completely disassociated from reality. But would it be a good film? Hell no.

And that's what Berlinger has done here. He's shown Kim doing something very normal, with no hint of insanity happening.

Agreed, it would be similarly shitty cinema to have the audience walloped over the head with endless "am I going insane?" monologues, fake clues, continuity aberrations, and the like. There's a middle line to be walked here, but Berlinger's script seems to not know where that line is.

The only indication that something is wrong is when Kim finds a bloody nail file in her grocery bag. The problem here is that this "clue" is so ambiguous that it could mean anything. Did Kim harm herself? Did Kim harm the cashier? Did the cashier harm someone? Did the cashier harm herself? Did the Blair Witch frame Kim?

This ambiguity is worsened (not heightened) because the ghostly children playing in the street are NEVER MENTIONED AGAIN.

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The following day, reality seems to unravel even further. Erica is missing. Jeffrey's van appears demolished, not just dented. Tristen seems unhinged. The sheriff calls Jeffrey to inform him that the group of foreign tourists were disembowled in the woods two nights ago, and he implies that Jeffrey did it. (Why the sheriff would make this accusation is never explained. It only works if Jeffrey's previous psychiatric incarceration was for some heinous crime like animal torture or harming others. But we're not told that.)

The first really major clue that the gang is not seeing reality occurs after they see Erica outside, holding onto a tree and swinging around it backward. When Stephen rushes out the front door to confront her, the walkway over the moat around Jeffrey's house collapses beneath him. Stephen hangs on for dear life. Tristen walks away, ignoring his plight; Jeffrey and Kim pull him to safety. Stephen argues with his wife about why she walked away. She could have said "what bridge collapse?", or she could have said "I wanted you to die", or she could have said something else. Instead, the film cuts away to show Kim discovering that Jeffrey has surveillance dossiers on each of them. Jeffrey denies knowing where they came from.

Shortly after, the group discovers Erica's corpse in a closet.

Let's pause for a moment again.

By now, it's apparent that the film unevenly depicts the "descent into madness". Seeing the van demolished is kind of spooky: It's broad daylight. This is no illusion. If Kim destroyed the van last night, how did she get home? Why does she not see the damage? If it's not destroyed, then why is Jeffrey hallucinating that it is destroyed? Unfortunately, there's no resolution here: The film cheats by shifting the audience's view to Stephen seeing Erica outside. (Normal people would have gone outside to look at the damage, touch it, feel it, break whatever hallucination is going on. Not this bunch. This is the horror film's cinematic equivalent of going into a dark basement and not turning on the lights.) Another example of unevenness comes when the gang learns that the foreign tourists were murdered. This really increases the creep-factor and tension, even though it occurs off-screen. The bridge collapse, however, is far too blatant. Stephen's dangling over the ravine is completely unlike the preceding low-tension creepy incidents (rashes on Erica's body, the bloody nail file, the fender-bender in the van). It's one thing to try to "up" the tension; it's another to turn it on full-blast and hope everyone hangs on.

Moreover, Stephen's near-death undermines the shock that should accompany the discovery of Erica's body. With our nerves on edge already, there's little scare left.

It also seems odd that Erica's body should be HIDDEN. None of the previous events were hidden. If Erica were found dead in another room, in the cellar, in the attic, outside, something -- it would have fit better. Moreover, the rationale for killing Erica is never provided by the narrative. It is one of those puzzling minor things that bugs me about the film. Is it that Erica's Wiccan religion could have freed her from the hallucinations? Is it that Erica threatened the Blair Witch? Is it because Erica was NOT pregnant?? (If so, why wasn't Kim killed?)

And those dossiers? THEY NEVER SHOW UP AGAIN.

The sheriff now appears at the front door, ringing the doorbell. Using his home's external security cameras, Jeffrey can see that no one is there. He also sees that the bridge over the ravine is restored. Jeffrey opens the front door to talk to the sheriff -- only to discover no one is there, and that the bridge is still demolished. Back inside, Jeffrey's security cameras show the bridge demolished, but looking out the window he sees it is whole again. He and the others ignore the shouts of the sheriff and the pounding at the door.

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After all this, the film pretty much rushes to its conclusion.

The film has given the audience some blatant and some subtle clues about doing things in reverse. Just to beat the theme into the audience's head, Tristen begins chanting about "widdershins" (doing something in reverse) and speaking backward. It's so blatant, that even Stephen, Jeffrey, and Kim figure out that they should play Jeffrey's video footage backward.

The footage shows the gang smoking dope, drinking, and then engaging in satanic rituals. Tristen leads them in an orgy. Oddly, this footage is hardly horrific or shocking. There's straight sex, and lesbian sex -- but no gay sex. (I guess South Park is wrong about Satan.) The rituals themselves lack anything shocking. Erica is shown swinging around the tree forwards, and it grows from a sapling into a mature tree. The gang seems horrified by all this, as they remember none of it.

But to the audience, it's not horrifying. Mysterious, sure, but not horrific. Gee, they had sex! Two women kissed! The men worshipped Tristen! MY GOD! Will the horror never end????

The gang confronts Tristen, who seems to be the ringleader in the rituals and orgy. She pleads with them to disbelieve the footage. In the next breath, she points out how willing they were to follow her down the path of booze, drugs, sex and satanism two nights ago.

If Berlinger's intention was to be ambiguous, here the audience MUST realize that something is incredibly wrong. It's not ambiguous any more. The audience may not know what is real any more, but it knows something is UN-real. (Berlinger used a linear narrative in this film. The audience is willing to suspend disbelief at this point and go along with the show in the expectation that all will be revealed soon.)

Amazingly, our crew of ghost-hunters doesn't realize this.

Jeffrey films Stephen and Kim confronting Tristen. Stephen, who until now has been almost completely in the background of the film (weirdly), becomes incredibly aggressive. He pushes his wife, gets into her face, hisses at her, shouts at her. Tristen begins to back up the stairs (instead of heading for the door like a normal person) to the second floor. Tristen alternates between taunting Stephen about his lack of sexual prowess, manliness, and intelligence and begging him to remember how much he loves her and that she just miscarried their child. They get to the second floor, where a rope is conveeeeeeeeeeeeniently tied to the rafters above. Seemingly possessed, Tristen winds the rope around her own neck, daring Stephen to hang her for killing their child. In a fit of rage, Stephen does just that -- and Tristen falls over the edge. The sound of her neck snapping is heard. Her body swings in the air, the rope creaking.

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That's it. Story over. No more horror.

Jeffrey, Stephen, and Kim are shown being interrogated by the sheriff and a psychiatrist. Police show Kim footage of her encounter with the convenience store cashier (whom Kim kills by slashing her throat with the nail file). Police show Stephen putting the rope around Tristen's neck and pushing her off the edge, while Tristen pleads for him to stop and spare her life. Jeffrey's internal home security footage shows him naked, hiding Erica's body in the closet.

The film ends with Jeffrey in a straight-jacket, moaning about the Blair Witch.

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At no point did anyone in the film consider that they were hallucinating. Jeffrey sees his demolished van, and Kim says it was a fender-bender. At no time do they try to resolve the issue logically, wonder how Kim got home, or call their insurance company. At no time does anyone question why Tristen starts mumbling about widdershins. After seeing the video footage, at no time does anyone say "My god, it's the Blair Witch! We need to get away from here!" -- like any half-wit would.

If this is "descent into madness", it's madness that (a) no one realizes they are descending into, and (b) madness that isn't apparent until the film's final scenes (which is as Berlinger intended it to be).

If the film's intent is to poke fun at or otherwise satirize or undermine the "lies" of The Blair Witch Project, its cinematography, its narrative, its editing, and its acting -- the film doesn't even begin to do so.

If the film's intent is to ridicule that people "believe what they see", it does just the opposite. The use of security footage, videotape, and more is used to depict reality -- undermining the insanity and disassociated state of the four main characters.

Now, there may be another solution here. That solution may be that what the audience has seen is real -- and that the security camera, videotape, and other footage is false. The police, the four main characters, and others take the video footage at face value, when in fact it is this footage that is faked by the Blair Witch.

But there is a big problem with that. For if the audience is to be dismissive of what they see on film.............. why not be dismissive of Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows itself? Why not disbelieve EVERYTHING we just spent 90 minutes watching?

And therein lies the rub.

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