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'Witch' Project: 'Book of Shadows'

Blur 'Witch' Project: 'Book of Shadows' goes back to Burkittsville and confuses the issue

Friday, October 27, 2000

By Ron Weiskind,Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Your stomach won't do flip-flops while watching "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2," which mostly eschews the nausea-inducing hand-held cameras used in its phenomenally popular predecessor.

'Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2'

RATING: R for violence, language, drug use and nudity

STARRING: Jeffrey Donovan, Tristen Skyler, Stephen Barker Turner, Erica Leerhsen, Kim Director.

DIRECTOR: Joe Berlinger.


CRITIC'S call: 2 stars.


Your brain, on the other hand, may go topsy-turvy trying to figure out what's happening.

Director and co-writer Joe Berlinger planned it that way, but he may have succeeded too well. "Blair Witch 2" is one of those movies that leaves us flailing in quicksand by making it impossible to tell what is real from what is imagined.

Of course, the original "Blair Witch Project" created much of its own hype from that very concept. The producers used Internet sites in advance of the film's release to make people think the movie was exactly what it claimed to be -- recently discovered footage by three student filmmakers who ventured into the Maryland woods and were never seen again.

"Blair Witch 2" makes no such pretense. It begins like a documentary -- the genre in which Berlinger has worked until now -- about the media frenzy that the first movie caused and the effect of the film's success on Burkittsville, Md., the town nearest to where it was set.

Before long, however, we may think we're back in the spooky universe of TV's "Twin Peaks." A visually hyperactive scene depicts a man in a mental hospital undergoing a very unpleasant-looking procedure -- OK, maybe you'll get a little squeamish.

Before long, though, we get down to business. Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan) has formed his own "Blair Witch" merchandising Web site. A group of customers has responded to his latest endeavor, offering tours of the area. Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a Wiccan, dislikes the image of witches portrayed in the movie. Tristen (Tristen Skyler) and Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) are writing a book about the Blair Witch. Kim (Kim Director, a Carnegie Mellon graduate who has acted at City Theater) is a full-fledged Goth with apparent psychic powers.

Jeff leads the group to the ruins of a house in the woods where they camp out for the night. But when they awake, it becomes immediately apparent that something frightening happened in the dark that they cannot explain. They return to Jeff's house, an old warehouse loft in the woods, to peruse the tapes from the video cameras Jeff set up at the campsite.

"Film lies, Kim. Video tells the truth," Jeff says at one point. But the characters keep finding themselves stymied at unlocking the secrets on those tapes. When they do, the question of what is truth seems more elusive than ever.

So what are we supposed to believe? Whatever we want, I suspect.

Berlinger, whose documentaries include the acclaimed "Brother's Keeper" and "Paradise Lost," deliberately blurs the line between reality and fiction in an entirely different way than "The Blair Witch Project" did. He is riffing on the theme, mixing the real reactions to that film with the actions of his fictional characters (who, like those in the first film, bear the names of the actors playing the roles).

Have they, in fact, brought back a supernatural spirit from the woods? Is one of them orchestrating the madness? Have they all gone crazy? And what about those of us who have been watching all along?

Aye, there's the rub. Are we afflicted, too? Maybe -- if you take "Blair Witch Project" hysteria at face value, if you consider that some people STILL think it's a documentary, if you think of popular media as a purveyor of mass psychosis.

It's an interesting premise. In fact, you could argue that movies are a form of mass psychosis in which we willingly participate, suspending our disbelief and pretending we are watching the stories of real people.

The irony is that if "The Blair Witch Project" seemed too real to some people, "Blair Witch 2" comes off as too unreal -- probably because Berlinger keeps altering the reality he has created. He lets us see the man behind the curtain, and as a result we realize the wizard is a fraud.

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