The Forest for the Trees

Berlinger should stick to his roots.

If nothing else, at least this generation of moviegoers can boast its demand for reality. This theme has become increasingly prevalent in the last few years of movies, from The Matrix to The Truman Show. Portraying reality isn’t very easy, especially since movie going is inherently all about escapism — suspending the audience’s sense of reality for the sake of fantasy.

Horror as a genre has not escaped the new fascination with reality-based experientialism in movies. Yet with much clout — most likely more than its creators would vouch for — The Blair Witch and its coming franchise has ushered in a sort of cultural progression for horror pictures. Being so highly experimental, people were naturally polarized into loving or hating it. And both camps had logical reasons. The cinema verite format, i.e. reality based film, either clicks with people or it doesn’t. Those used to the eviscerations of Freddy Kruger (Wes Craven’s icon of fear a generation ago) are typically let down by the Blair Witch’s faux-carnage. In some ways, horror has come full circle, returning to the power of the Hitchcockian suggestive mind to fill in the fear.

That said, it was with eager anticipation that the sequel to the most successful low-budget film of all time be released. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 had a mountain of expectation going against it. Most encouragingly cast in the project was director Joe Berlinger, the man behind the wonderful documentary Brother’s Keeper.

At first glance, you get the dread that this will be yet another formula pitting of a group of supple 20-somethings being chased by some evil killer / force. It starts that way, but keeps a healthy distance from the trendy Scream team.

And yet, BW2 couldn’t resist the temptation of self-self-reference. Generation Y kids, obviously sensory deprived, are scouring the Maryland woods in droves. Tour guides actually bump into each other. Everyone has a camera, hoping to make the next big documentary (thankfully without the now immortalized ShakyCam). One character even assumes that “video doesn’t lie, film does.” Wink, wink. Another counters that contemporary culture deems that “perception is reality.”

Our group’s tour guide, Jeff Donovan, is a former mental patient. As events unfold, we’re to wonder if he is merely relapsing into his psychological instability, or if his delusions well-founded? The Wiccan in the group, Erica, is mildly hostile to intolerant conservatives fearful of her religion (“fear is on the forefront of failure”). Erica intends to communicate posthumously with Elly Kedward, the fabled witch. So are her intentions pure or is she playing into an Occultist stereotype? Then there’s the token Goth chick, who’s along for the ride because she “thought the movie was cool.” Yet her pseudo-psychic abilities soon come into question. Is she simply desperate to relive the myth?

Finally, there’s the couple researching their co-authored book on the Blair Witch phenomenon. Steven is the analytical minded in the duo, while his mate, Tristan, is the willing believer. They argue over the subtitle of their soon-to-be-published account: “Hysteria or History?” or vice versa. After Tristan’s miscarriage, she begins to hallucinate visions of Ilene Treacle, the first victim attributed to the Blair Witch. Yet, isn’t it plausible that her delusional state has been triggered by this hyper-suggestive environment? Steven thinks so. And why shouldn’t he? It’s the best rational explanation. But when they both begin to hear the same sounds, he cracks up. Is his fear of the unexplainable breaking down his empirical method?

None of these open-ended questions are answered with any satisfaction, and that’s the biggest difference between the sequel and the original Blair Witch. The first allowed the viewer to ask his own questions instead of introducing red herrings at which to point fingers. BW2’s third act does more to unravel the entire premise, and a few of the “jump” scenes are rather formulaic.

It’s clear that the production company, Artisan, tried to milk this cash cow for more than it was worth. Berlinger should stick to his roots.

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