The portrayal of violence in art, and its influence (or lack thereof) on acts of violence committed in real life is a debate that has raged since the beginning of culture, and one that will likely continue until the heat death of the universe. "Life imitates art" and "art imitates life" are axioms that are argued for and against so passionately and logically because each carries equal weight. It's as plausible to believe that consuming violence in entertainment gives a person violent ideas as it is to believe that a person prone to violence would be that way with or without inspiration. The only true, definitive answer to the debate is that there is no true, definitive answer. That doesn't stop artists from exploiting that tension, nor does it prevent people from taking sides and criticizing where they deem appropriate. The horror genre can be seen as a cultural ground zero for that debate, with many filmmakers taken to task for their exploitation of violence, and many fans berated for their enjoyment of such entertainment. As a result, the debate whether horror films help or hurt humanity is addressed in many horror movies themselves, showing up as a subtextual theme here or sly joke there. Sometimes (though very rarely) the indictment of a horror audience is the literal text of a film, such as in both versions of Michael Hankeke's Funny Games. There is only one instance, however, of a horror film that is all at once an exploration of the genre's effect on culture, a condemnation of its audience, and a much anticipated sequel to one of the biggest horror movies of all time. That film is Joe Berlinger's arrogant, haphazard, fascinatingly miscalculated and unintentionally hilarious Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.
Most sequels, especially horror sequels, follow a "same, but different" template, putting a slight spin on a rehashed version of the original film. Blair Witch 2 (which I will call the movie from now on given the fact that there is no reference or mention to a "Book of Shadows" at any point in the film) is undoubtedly one of the most unique sequels ever made, in that it takes place in "our" world, where The Blair Witch Project was just a fictional movie. It took the Nightmare On Elm Street series seven films to get to a meta take on the material, and Blair Witch did it in two. In Blair Witch 2, Jeff (Jeffery Donovan, pre-Burn Notice) is a huge mega fan of The Blair Witch Project who makes a living making and selling worthless tchotchkes from the surrounding woods where the first movie was made, and decides to graduate to running his own guided tour of filming locations for other fans and tourists. On his inaugural (or "virginal", as the characters joke) tour, he is joined by the Wiccan Erica (Erica Leerhsen) who's looking to promote "real" witchcraft and communicate with the Blair witch, couple Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and Tristen (Tristine Skyler) who are writing a book looking to either confirm or debunk the Blair witch, and goth gal Kim (Kim Director) who comes along because she "thought the movie was cool". In an awkwardly extended first act, the tour group visit and spend the night at the ruins where "Rustin Parr", the Blair witch-influenced child murderer mentioned in the first film, used to live. After being accosted by a rival tour group and subsequently enjoying a night of debauchery, the group awaken with no memory of the night before and a handful of videotapes from their cameras (literal "found footage", in a clever touch) as the only evidence of what went on. After an oddly brief trip to the local hospital, the group and the film end up in Jeff's house/headquarters/bachelor pad built in an old disused mill, where they all begin to hallucinate and become paranoid that something awful happened the night before.
It takes a while for the movie to finally settle into its concept (which is basically The Hangover but with witchcraft and murder), likely due to the fact that it is a haphazard mess, structurally and otherwise. Some of these issues can certainly be laid at the feet of the studio (the now defunct Artisan Entertainment, along with producers Haxan Films), who demanded Berlinger reshoot and reorder large portions of the film. As a result, the narrative jumps all over the place, from flash forwards to flashbacks to hallucinations to dream sequences. At first this technique manages to be effective at creating an atmosphere of confusion and paranoia, giving the audience a similar experience to the characters’. However, unlike Christopher Nolan's meticulously constructed Memento, which was released the same year as Blair Witch 2 and manipulated its audience to put them in the main character’s state of mind, the obfuscation in Blair Witch 2 begins to feel too out of control before long, ending up more annoyingly baffling then eerily unsettling.
That confusion extends to the film's setting, which at first appears to be a clever meta twist on the material by setting it in the "real" world (like the fantastic Wes Craven's New Nightmare had done years before) but confuses the issue by making the mythology of The Blair Witch Project apparently "real" as well. For instance, the tour group alternates between quoting Heather Donahue from the first film and then speak about Rustin Parr as if he were a real person. The actors in the original Blair Witch used their real names as the character’s names, given all the improvisation they did on camera (and helping the realistic nature of the movie and its ad campaign). The characters in Blair Witch 2 share all the same first names as the actor’s real names, but the character’s surnames have all been changed. It’s completely baffling as to why they bothered to do this at all, since it’s rather weak as a reference to the naming convention from the first film, and isn’t necessary for the film’s conceit (an onscreen legend at the beginning of the movie explains that the film is based on real events but is itself a “reenactment” of them). Rather then do what New Nightmare did and make a strong delineation between the fictional world and the “real” world, Blair Witch 2 fudges it, toying with the concept but not committing either way.
Ultimately the film is compromised due to the massive disagreements between Berlinger and Artisan/Haxan. The studio and producers wished for a straightforward horror sequel, whereas Berlinger (a documentary filmmaker prior to Blair Witch 2 and one ever since) wanted to make a film commenting on the effects of horror film fandom & mass hysteria, while condemning fans of the original Blair Witch. Berlinger thought the marketing tactic of claiming that the original film really happened was irresponsible, and Blair Witch 2 is (or attempts to be) a horror tale in the vain of "you reap what you sew" whereby fans of the original either meet deadly fates or (possibly) commit horrible deeds. While the veracity of Berlinger's thesis is debatable, his original cut would have undoubtedly been more consistent, for in actuality the film is a muddled message, positing that the Blair witch (or something comparable) may actually exist and has either possessed or manipulated these kids. This brings the movie more in line with the original, but where in that film the supernatural occurrences were largely implied, here they're mostly shown to us, which is of course visually interesting yet ruins the ambiguity that this version attempts to present.
So is there any value to Blair Witch 2 beyond being a bizarre curiosity in horror film history? Depending on your tastes, I believe there is. For anyone who is looking for a compelling story with consistency, this is not your movie. However, for those who appreciate troubled films that vary wildly in tone, you just might have a blast with it. A large portion of the film's fun comes from Lanny Flaherty, who plays the Burkittsville sheriff as if it's his life's mission to chew every last bit of scenery to bits. At one point he intimidates Jeff by calling him, telling him to turn on a live news broadcast, and then waving to the camera while still on the phone. Other scenes have him interrogate the remaining tour group kids while sounding like he’s always a few moments away from hocking a loogie into a spittoon. While Flaherty is clearly having fun, the other actors seemingly believe themselves to be in a hip Dimension Films production, running around alternating being witty and screaming while Marilyn Manson blasts on the soundtrack. The practical effects and makeup are well done, and the studio-mandated gore and nudity gives the film a lot more visual variety then its predecessor certainly had. It all ends up feeling like a film co-directed by a drunk Wes Craven and a half-awake Michael Haneke, written by Kevin Williamson with a head injury. What started life as a refutation of the first film's marketing gimmick and examination of the horror genre itself unfortunately ended up as an example for executives of why original sequel ideas should be regarded as suspect. Book Of Shadows (again, what book??): Blair Witch 2 is a sequel that stands alone in nearly every way, but for all the wrong reasons.