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Bubble bubble, avoid this muddle
Second 'Blair Witch' casts no spell
(CNN) -- It seems, at times, that the world can be broken into three groups: those who have seen the most successful independent film of all time, "The Blair Witch Project," and think it lived up to its Internet hype as the most frightening film ever made; those who sat through the movie and thought it was about as scary as the Dumbo ride at Disneyland; and the millions who missed the marketing phenomenon and could not care less.
Those in the third category are the lucky ones. The inevitable sequel, "Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows" is upon us. Woe betide us all.
(In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I was underwhelmed when I saw "The Blair Witch Project" at the Sundance Festival in 1999. The movie's premise was brilliant, but the execution -- thanks to its $30,000 budget, overall bad acting and fuzzy storyline -- was on par with a garden-variety student film. The original movie just did not engage me on any level. So let's move on to the sequel.)
"Blair Witch 2" is much different than the original -- so different, in fact, that it may be in danger of losing its core fan base of Internet-crazed moviegoers. Co-writer/director Joe Berlinger has taken the original story concept and turned it on its head. This is not a sequel in any traditional sort of way.
The legend revisited
A much bigger budget, talented -- but mainly unknown -- actors, and a more conventional plotline make this film more accessible to mainstream audiences. All that also puts this movie smack dab in the middle of the horror-flick genre -- a genre, by the way, that the original "Witch" blew to smithereens.
Wisely, Berlinger doesn't ask his audience to suspend disbelief with another documentary-style film whose main conceit is that the plot may be a real story.
He's tricky, though: The film begins in video shot in documentary style with local people being interviewed about the intrusion of movie fans overrunning the area. But soon Berlinger switches to standard 35-millimeter film stock and begins to structure a story in which five people, who have seen the original movie, gather to explore the actual area where the first film was made.
What you have here is a motley group of victims, all in search of a crime. It doesn't take them long to find it.
Jeff, played by Jeffrey Donovan, has recently been released from a mental institution. After some harrowing scenes featuring vicious medical types hosing him down, we see Jeff returning to his native Burkittsville, Maryland, home of the infamous Blair Witch legend.
Jeff may have been nuts, but he's not crazy. Big bucks, he realizes, can be made off gullible tourists buying all the endless supplies of Blair Witch souvenirs: T-shirts, coffee cups, keychains and twigs shaped into the famous logo. Star-struck fans cannot get enough of them.
Back to the woods
Quicker than you can say "con man with a mission," he rounds up four people willing to pay for the privilege of going on his first-ever, two-day guided tour of the remains of the house where the "The Blair Witch Project" came to its bitter, bloodless, and (supposedly) frightening end.
This new posse is diverse. Erica, played by Erica Leerhsen, is a practicing Wiccan. (Yes, there is a trend here. The lead actors all use their real first names -- less to memorize, apparently.) For the grossly uninformed, a Wiccan is a kindly witch who is into nature, rather than murder.
Kim, played by Kim Director -- that's her name, honestly -- is an Elvira wannabe, dripping black clothing and smeared in mascara. Is anyone screaming cliche yet?
This merry band is rounded out by a couple of graduate students, Tristen and Stephen, portrayed by Tristen Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner. They're writing a book about the witch. He's thinks the whole thing is a hoax; she's more open-minded.
Off they go into the woods, dragging along tons of recorders and video cameras.
Some things never change. At first, there is an avalanche of inside jokes about the original film. "How many Heathers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Just one!" whimpers Stephen as he clutches his face and screams into the camera's lens, mimicking the hapless character of the first "Witch."
Then the gang chases off a group of tourists, followed by a bacchanal of drinking and dancing around a crackling fire.
Cut to the next day. Their camp has been destroyed. The electronic equipment is smashed and none of them remembers a thing. After finding their tapes -- some facets of the original movie remain after all, including the all-important retrieval of tapes -- they retreat to Jeff's home, a funky converted old factory in the middle of nowhere.
This is where the main action takes place. Between flashforwards, flashbacks, hallucinations and plenty of spooky sound effects, the story stumbles along.
The tourists, we learn, have been murdered in a grisly and graphic way. The main suspects are the only other group out in the woods that night -- yep, Jeff and his magical mystery four.
Ultimately, there is no one to hiss at or to root for in this movie. The filmmakers know their core audience will turn out the first weekend, but will those moviegoers recommend this "Witch" to friends or even go see it again? This sequel's creators also know many people were turned off after seeing the first film because they felt it did not live to all its hype.
This time, they've tried to please everyone, but have come up with something that may satisfy no one.
It will be interesting to see what happens after the first weekend. Will marketing lighting strike twice? It's doubtful.
By the way: A third sequel is already in the works!
"Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows" opens Friday. Rated R. 90 minutes.
Review: Blair Witch Volume 1: Rustin Parr
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