The Blair Witch Project was something of a cultural phenomenon, so why do a sequel? Paul Fischer tried to find out by talking to the director of Book of Shadows, Joe Berlinger, and some cast members, who feel that this is not your average sequel.
Joe Berlinger, director of the all new Blair Witch sequel, Book of Shadows said that he wanted to make more than just a horror movie to follow up 1999's hit The Blair Witch Project. "I loved the first movie, but [Blair Witch 2 is] an anti-sequel in the sense that [The Blair Witch Project] was such a unique cultural phenomenon, I thought it would be more effective and creatively more challenging to try not to compete with it, not try to replicate it, but rather, to comment upon it," Berlinger told me when we met during the film's recent press junket in Los Angeles. Berlinger, an award-winning documentarian, said Book of Shadows is more like a sequel to the media phenomenon surrounding the first movie. "I had a very mixed reaction to The Blair Witch Project," he said. "As a storyteller-and I consider myself as both a storyteller and a journalist-I loved The Blair Witch Project, but as a documentarian, I was deeply disturbed and almost offended by the movie, because I am very concerned about two things. One is, documentary makers don't shoot in the way that movie was shot. I was also bothered by the fact that it was marketed as a real story, when in fact it isn't. That's one more chapter in the history of the blurring of the line between entertainment and reality, which I think has become a very dangerous phenomenon in our society-worth commenting on, which is why I chose to make [Blair Witch 2] the way I chose to make it."
Book of Shadows tells the story of five young people obsessed with the first film who venture into the Maryland woods to explore the movie's locations, and end up over-involved in violence and mystery. The sequel takes 5 distinct characters and places them in this quagmire of inexplicable violence. Erica (Erica Leerhsen) is not only a 'fan' of the original Blair Witch, but also a witch herself, a 'wicken', as she describes herself. Maybe a good witch, maybe not. Actress Leerhsen, who spends some of the film dancing naked with a skull throughout the film's gory satanic ritual sequence, describes her character as being more than simply 'witchly'. "She's more of a party animal and a vulnerable flirt, who wants affection, who NEEDS to have a heightened experience all the time." Remarking on the skull sequence, the first-time feature film actress explains that her character "has this skull, things are going insane, so the character crosses the line between wickenism and evil and brings the former to an evil point. She becomes very lost."
Like all of the cast members of this sequel, 24-year old Leerhsen saw the original Blair Witch and comments on the hype of the original and how that manifests itself when working on a sequel. "When I saw it I knew it wasn't real, but it scared me just as much, because I asked myself: What IF this could be real?" Watching the original was a must as she prepared to audition for Book of Shadows, "because my character, according to the character breakdown, was obsessed with The Blair Witch Project, so I wanted to also become obsessed with it." Obsessed she became "because I wanted this part so badly as she was such an interesting character. "
"The comment that I'm trying to make is that evil is human," Berlinger said. "It is a very dangerous thing that the blurring of the line between fiction and reality has gotten to the point where people walked out of the first movie and thought it was real. For me, Blair Witch 2 is about how we as a society so idolize our movie celebrities-we have become such rabid fans of television and movies-that life seems only to be valid if you're on television or movies. So it's about the nature of fanaticism; it's about how the media aided and abetted the creation of this phenomenon of this little movie."
Actor Jeffrey Donovan, playing tour guide Jeffrey, also comments on the impact of the first film. To be more specific, he adds slowly, the film explores "the perception of what is being transmitted to you by not only the media but also the folklore around you. That folklore can be the news, it can be a witch, it can be your cousin's uncle who was stabbed by a crazy man back in 1922." Donovan continues to explain that, thematically enveloped in this Blair Witch sequel, is the idea that "our perception of reality is being shaped and manipulated every single day and I think people need to start being aware of that and that's what I think, ultimately, this movie is all about." Yet at the same time, director Berlinger is quick to point out that his movie is also "a cinematically lush, horror-thriller experience". Berlinger also comments on the nature of violence in the cinema, yet remains unapologetic about the extremes of violence that permeate the film and disputes the fact, somewhat defensively, that Book of Shadows contains gratuitous sex and violence. "It's all story related. This is a movie about kids who are delusional, got fucked up on drugs and alcohol, blacked out and went on a vicious killing spree. So how can you not show that part of the story?"
Berlinger takes a routine horror film and infuses it with thematic elements utilised in his documentaries, "while also trying to make a film that comments on the impact of popular culture." Of course, whether today's teenagers get the message or view the film as mainstream horror remains to be seen. "You can't underestimate the intelligence of your audience", Berlinger concludes.
Blair Witch 2 : Book of Shadows opens nationally this Friday.