Even before the opening credits roll, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 exposes itself as a schizoid monster slapped together by uneasy bedfellows. Director Joe Berlinger begins with a pomo-skeptical commentary on The Blair Witch Projectas phenom, featuring punditry from media types, critics and peevish residents of the tiny real-life town of Burkittsville, Maryland, where the first movie was filmed and which was subsequently overrun by hordes of credulous fans. Cut to scenes, shoe-horned in at the 11th hour by "request" of distributor Artisan Entertainment, of actor Jeffrey Donovan—shaved, trussed and drooling yellow goo in a mental hospital that would make a Hammer Films madhouse look like Club Med.
Not that Berlinger was opposed to making a horror movie. By his own admission in an interview, the director —a murder freak who made (with Bruce Sinofsky) the acclaimed fratricide documentary Brother's Keeper and a more ambivalently received pair of films about the child killings at Robin Hood Hills—had been fruitlessly "banging my head against the Hollywood wall" for some time. Blair Witch 2 is his big break, and though he considers it an irony that a seasoned cinma-vrit man like himself should turn his back on the hand-held neo-naturalism of the original Blair Witch, in one sense at least he's just the man for the job. Berlinger frames his documentaries as quiet horror movies designed as much to creep out his audience as to soberly explore the farther reaches of human evil. Quiet, however, seems to have been the last thing on Artisan's mind for a sequel to the wildly successful Blair Witch, and Berlinger may have given more ground than he should have to get his foot in the door to commercial filmmaking. Either that, or he has bitten off more than he can chew, sacrificing his loftier goals to production of a straight-up horror show sufficiently amped to goose a generation so schooled in extremity, it's virtually ungoosable.
Certainly Book of Shadows has the right MTV gloss: a driving soundtrack executive-produced by Marilyn Manson, who also contributed a new song; lurid Halloween lighting by cinematographer Nancy Schreiber; and five young unknown actors who, so far from the three rumpled Everymen videotaping their own descent into terror in Blair Witch, have Hollywood-pretty enough faces to grace the cover of Entertainment Weekly. We meet them as they gather under the dubious wing of the wild-eyed Jeff (Donovan), a self-styled tour guide who promises to show them around the witch's haunts in the Black Hills around Burkittsville. At the outset, they're a hip bunch who, notwithstanding their obsession with Blair Witch (the movie more than the legend), are sheltering behind the smartypants iconoclasm that is said to mark their generation: Kim (Kim Director), a caustic black-clad Elvira clone with Debi Mazar eyes who's subject to attacks of unsettling ESP; Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a cute practicing witch who's out to show that Wiccan ways were grossly distorted in The Blair Witch Project; and a grad-student couple, Tristen (Tristen Skyler) and Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner), who are writing a book about the Blair Witch and bickering over whether the legend has a basis in fact.
In a weighty director's statement in the press notes, complete with chapter headings, Berlinger strives mightily to give The Blair Witch Project and its audience their due. Too mightily by half, say I, who was in the camp (most of it middle-aged) that was bored to tears by that leaden piece of reality TV and attributed its success to capably sleazy hard sell both on and off the Internet. ("We duped people," crowed Amorette Jones, Artisan's chief of worldwide marketing, now busy again promoting the sequel with, among other delights, a three-day orgy of Web festivities.) Berlinger also makes much of his break with the theory and practice of The Blair Witch Project; he has a higher mission, which is to examine the media circus that surrounds that movie and through it, the soaring obsession (especially among young people) with the supernatural in the age of science.
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The questions are worth asking, and they're briefly aired in a screenplay that also talks in chapter headings, by our famous five as they parry and thrust—beside a campfire at the site of one of the legend's most notorious massacres—over whether the Blair Witch events amounted to a real encounter with the paranormal or an outburst of mass hysteria brought on by too much Web-heading. With that moment of intellect safely out of the way, the group wakes up the next morning to behold a grisly scene of execution and retreats in terror across a rusty drawbridge to Jeff's loft—a diligently ghoulish habitat stuffed with Blair Witch memorabilia—to lick its wounds and turn its terror inward. And this is when Book of Shadows morphs into what all along it has promised, in the pumped-up back story inflicted on Berlinger by the cultural titans at Artisan, to be:_a cheesy, unintentional horror parody, complete with stigmata, staring Stepford eyes and ghostly apparitions filtering through traumatized minds. By industry accounts, Book of Shadows, which was made for a stingy $15 million (a fortune compared to its predecessor, a steal for its genre), is already in the black if you count worldwide sales and tie-ins. Which is less a judgment on the movie's worth than another dreary instance of independent film signing over its soul to the tradesmen.
Here's vrit for you: Marc Singer, a young British scuba instructor and male model, jettisoned his life to live among the homeless who, some of them for as long as 20 years, have called an Amtrak railway tunnel their home. During the two years he spent there, Singer made a black-and-white movie using settlement people as crew. The result is Dark Days, which is nowhere near as glum as its title suggests. Respectful without the hushed tones of sorrow that documentaries on such subjects often affect, unadorned but for a touch of soulful soundtrack by DJ Shadow, the movie shows a community at work and play in surprisingly ordinary ways. The men and women, among them practicing or recovered crack addicts, cook, clean house, shower, shave, watch TV, set up security systems, tend pets, plot the next day's earnings, hang out, quarrel, and prop up one another when the going gets rough. Just like the rest of us, with the significant difference that they share space and compete for food with a multitude of rats, including the ones who show up from Amtrak to evict them.
Actually, Singer demonizes nobody. Nor does he romanticize the people who live in this dank habitat amid the constant roar of trains rushing through the tunnel. The movie is often very funny, not just when the crew mugs for "my friend Marc"'s camera, but organically so, as when they discuss the particularly appealing lunch menu at their favorite detox center, or the respective merits of the doughnuts they find as they rummage through trash bags above ground. Just as organically, it can break your heart as you watch and listen to the anguish of a doped-out woman pining for the kids who've been taken away from her. Dark Days even has a naturally occurring happy ending. Designed neither to warm your heart nor shelter you in the comfort of liberal guilt, the movie does what so many style-conscious, "subjective" documentaries have long forgotten how to do. It shows you a world, and stays the hell out of it.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was directed by Joe Berlinger; written by Dick Beebe and Berlinger; produced by Bill Carraro; and stars Jeffrey Donovan, Kim Director, Erica Leerhsen, Tristen Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner. Now playing countywide; Dark Days was directed and produced by Marc Singer. Now playing at Landmark's Nuart, West Los Angeles.