Joe Berlinger and the Blair Witch Anti-Sequel

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:45

    "I was so concerned about the pressure of physically delivering the movie that I tuned out all the larger, external, thematic pressures?the knowledge that critics and fans alike were just waiting to rip this thing to shreds, anticipating that it would be either a derivative knockoff or a schlocky, inferior sequel," says Berlinger, a New York-based documentarian whose resume includes Brother's Keeper and the two Paradise Lost movies, codirected with Bruce Sinofsky. While laboring to produce a follow-up a mere 15 months after the release of the original, Berlinger also had to tune out an even more troubling fact: that while most hit movies can count on at least half their audience turning out for a second chapter, Blair Witch had an unusually high percentage of unsatisfied customers. And while millions embraced it as a demanding and inventive low-budget antidote to typical Hollywood product, there were just as many who thought it was pretentious, overhyped, shoddily made and devoid of a payoff.

    "How do you convince those people to go through the abuse again?" asks Berlinger. "It was a bit of a poisoned chalice, being given this movie."

    Undaunted, Berlinger drank deep. The result is intriguing enough to rate a look even from those who despised the original. While by no means a masterwork of fright, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which opens Oct. 27, casts a unique spell. Though it has many of the surface characteristics of the current trend in Hollywood horror flicks?young, attractive cast, blaring rock soundtrack, blood and guts galore?it's less a straightforward sequel than a peculiar postmodern deconstruction of the first film and the hoopla surrounding it.

    It begins with the presumption that the first film was a real media event, if not necessarily a real event; the story is preceded by a title card warning viewers that what they're about to see is a "fictionalized re-enactment" of something that actually happened. Then Berlinger jumps into a brief "documentary" prologue of Burkittsville residents complaining that the first movie was a bunch of bull about a nonexistent legend that unfortunately caused thousands of idiotic young fans to overrun the town. The nonchronological narrative then follows the bloody, surreal misadventures of a group of young Blair Witch-heads, who, like the trio in the first film, experienced a strange event in the woods; they're led by a young man who makes his living taking Blair Witch buffs on filmmaking expeditions.

    Blair Witch 2 is about 70 percent smarter than it needed to be to strike box-office gold, shuffling its fragmented narrative Rubik's Cube-style, commenting on the pervasiveness of both caught-on-camera video footage and p.r. hype, and withholding answers to its mysteries until the closing moments. Even loudmouthed morons who think the whole purpose of moviegoing is to guess what's going to happen next and broadcast their brilliance to people in the next row might be shushed by Berlinger's unusual strategy. If Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now) directed an early-80s drive-in slasher picture, this is what it would look like.

    A self-described "journalist and storyteller," Berlinger had a mixed reaction to the first Blair Witch. "As a storyteller, I loved Blair Witch?the whole 'found footage' conceit, the notion that you were basically watching a snuff film linked to all this scary stuff happening in the woods. But as a journalist, I was greatly disturbed by the movie. I was particularly disturbed by the fact that it was marketed as a real story by the filmmakers and the studio. Moviegoers were told they were seeing fact when it was fiction.

    "We've all witnessed this decades-long blurring of the lines between entertainment and reality, between entertainment and news, between fiction and reality," Berlinger continues. "It seemed to me that Blair Witch was one more example of that. I also was totally fascinated and bothered by the fact that some people left the theater still thinking what they'd seen was real. This suggested to me that we have become very undiscerning about what we think is real?that the more amateurish the video, the more we believe it's real."

    Ironically, Berlinger's journalistic impulses and obsession with blurred lines made him the right choice for the sequel. He and Sinofsky (who is currently finishing his own solo project about the history of Sun Records) are known as nonfiction filmmakers, but their expansive, meditative style imbues even straightforward accounts of crime and punishment with novelistic intensity. They also have a knack for getting involved in their own stories. The first Paradise Lost followed the trial of three black-clad, heavy-metal worshipping teens accused of murdering three children in West Memphis, AR, in what appeared to be a Satanic sacrifice. In one startling scene, defense lawyers introduced into evidence a bloody fishing knife that a murder victim's stepfather gave to Berlinger and Sinofsky's cinematographer as a souvenir.

    The doubts about the innocence of the stepfather became a focal point of the second Paradise Lost. Meticulous and self-aware, the sequel was less a postscript than a critical look at the impact of journalism and cinema; the main characters were a group of dedicated Paradise Lost fans who thought the three convicted teens had been railroaded by the Arkansas justice system and deserved a new trial.

    Out of respect for reality, Berlinger chose to direct Blair Witch 2 in an obviously "fictional" way, with a slot-machine narrative, stylized performances and the hyperactive, tilted camera style familiar from music videos and contemporary teen horror flicks. "For me to have used faux-documentary techniques and convince people they were seeing a real story would have been wrong," he says. "I chose to honor the documentary tradition I come from by avoiding that kind of thing."

    If it sounds like the director of the sequel is rebuking many aspects of the original, that's because he is. Berlinger repeatedly uses words like "interpretation," "commentary" and "critique" to describe Blair Witch 2. He says that in early talks with Artisan, the distributor, he insisted he be allowed to take apart the original and treat it critically; the distributor, eager to recapture the freshness of the first film, backed him. Yet it would be a mistake to think of Blair Witch 2 as an intellectualized piece of hired-gun filmmaking. In its own smarty-pants way, it's a personal movie, shot through with references to Berlinger's favorite documentaries (including Frederick Wiseman's legendary Titicut Follies) and his own collaborations with Sinofsky.

    "If people perceive this film as trivializing Paradise Lost, I would be sad, because that was certainly not my intention," he says. But, at the same time, "When you write a screenplay, especially one that's supposed to be made into a movie on a very tight schedule, you have to work from what you know, from what you've experienced. One could criticize me for infusing some of our themes into this film, but since I am a documentary filmmaker, I chose to make references to my documentary past rather than pretending it doesn't exist.

    "The achievement of this film, whether people like it or not, is that it's probably the most commercial movie of the season, and certainly commercial in its origins, yet it's also a consideration of the various commercial forces that combined to create the Blair Witch phenomenon?the intersection of fiction and reality and marketing and the Internet. I'm basically saying there is no Blair Witch. It's an anti-sequel."