As the reviews of the 2000 sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 rolled in, director Joe Berlinger, days before his 40th birthday, curled up in a ball in his bed, wondering if his career was over.
“Everything — and I mean everything — that made The Blair Witch Project a little indie masterpiece has been falsified and trashed in this spectacularly bad sequel,” Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian. “For all its clever notions, Book of Shadows often seems more like a montage of pasted-together images than a coherent horror story,” Steven Holden said in The New York Times, while offering faint praise of the movie’s moderate scariness. Jonathan Rosenbaum noted in The Chicago Reader that “reality, characters, and fear are all well beyond the capacities of this feature.” And Roger Ebert, who lauded Berlinger’s work on films like Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, took a shot at the filmmaker’s very being: “He is one of the best documentarians around. But now that I’ve seen Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, I’m disturbed.”
The reviled horror sequel did not end Berlinger’s career. In fact, the director cites its colossal failure as the reason he tracked down Lars Ulrich, pitched him a film on Metallica, and made one of the all-time great music documentaries, Some Kind of Monster. To climb out of a pit of depression, he chased a dream project. But to this day, the mere mention of Blair Witch 2 stings Berlinger. He’s rarely discussed Book of Shadows over the years, and on a recent call with Polygon, said he couldn’t remember the last time he actually watched the movie.
And yet. On Oct. 30, Berlinger will hold court at the Nitehawk Cinema Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, for a group of patrons ready to give the movie a second shot. Like so many of the oddities bursting out of Hollywood’s 2000s churn, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 has been reclaimed by the horror community as “actually good” — or at least inspired. Berlinger says he agreed to the screening, in spite of the film’s potential for triggering painful memories, because he gets what the pro-Book of Shadows contingent sees in it.
“I don’t hate the movie,” he says. “I hated the experience of what happened.”
The original Blair Witch Project cast a spell over the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. Was it fact or fiction? There was an obvious answer, but the executives at Artisan Entertainment saw potential in the confusion. The studio bought the rights to the movie out of the festival, and in preparation for a release in July, orchestrated a Web 1.0 marketing campaign that preyed on an audience that hadn’t yet developed a taste for found-footage horror. The rumors surrounding the lost videotapes of “Heather,” “Michael,” “Joshua,” and their seemingly supernatural demise turned Blair Witch into a global phenomenon that earned more than $240 million worldwide off a budget in the low six figures. What critics saw as a one-of-a-kind experiment, Artisan saw as a gold mine. By November 1999, just four months after release, the studio had commissioned no fewer than three screenplays for a sequel.
At the same time, Berlinger was out pitching a script he hoped would be his jump from documentary to narrative film. His 1992 doc Brother’s Keeper interrogated media coverage of a murder in upstate New York; Paradise Lost probed the lives of the “West Memphis Three,” three teenagers Berlinger believed were wrongfully convicted of murder. (He went on to make two sequels to that film, and played a major part in a court’s decision to overturn the ruling and release the men from prison.) Berlinger hoped his narrative directorial debut would be The Little Fellow in the Attic, a true-crime-esque story of a woman who carries on a doomed affair with a man hidden in her basement. Artisan was interested, but as Berlinger talked to more and more executives about making the film, it became apparent the company had ulterior motives.
“I’m about to do the pitch for the fifth time with the three co-presidents of Artisan, Amir Malin, Bill Block, and John Hegeman. And I start, and they put up their hand and they said, ‘No, no, you’re not here for that. We think you would be an interesting choice for the sequel to The Blair Witch Project.’ The subterfuge of getting me there and not being honest with me about why I’m having all these meetings should have been a clue [about how things would go].”
The Blair Witch Project was successfully passed off as a documentary, so a documentarian directing a sequel made perfect sense to the studio executives who needed a Blair Witch 2 as quickly as possible. Berlinger spent Thanksgiving 1999 reading through the three existing scripts, and he thought they were abysmal. All three brought Heather, Michael, and Joshua back, by way of the same found-footage style as the first movie.
“I called them up on Monday and I said, ‘Look, I’m passing, because all three drafts to me make a mistake,’” Berlinger says. “As a documentarian, I don’t want to participate in making fake documentaries. And secondly, Heather, Josh, and Mike have been on Letterman and Leno and on the cover of Time and Newsweek. How can you continue the found-footage conceit? Years later, I realized that’s all the fans really wanted, and I was being way overly intellectual about it.”
Artisan listened, and asked Berlinger to pitch his own take on the movie. His way in: Instead of a straight sequel to The Blair Witch Project, he would piggyback off the real-life mania induced by the film. In the months after Blair Witch’s release, Burkittsville, Maryland — the real-life town where Heather, Michael, and Joshua went missing in the film — was overrun with tourists hoping for their own Blair Witch encounter, and store owners cashing in with merch. Berlinger found that dynamic ripe for lampooning. In his film, a group of rabid fans would descend on Burkittsville to determine whether the Blair Witch truly exists, only to become so lost in the blur between reality and fiction that they commit murder. There wouldn’t be a Blair Witch or anything supernatural, just grisly terror brought on by a media circus.
Artisan bought the pitch, then gave Berlinger two months to write a script. Blair Witch 2 was going into production in January 2000, no matter what.
Berlinger can’t say if the pure version of his movie would have been good, but he would have preferred to flame out on his own terms. “My cut had a very satirical tone that takes a horrifying twist at the end, kind of like a Scream,” he says. “I was making fun of the whole idea of actually doing a sequel. It was a meditation on the dangers of blurring the lines between entertainment and news, between fiction and reality in our society — never dreaming where we’d land today.”
It’s possible that Berlinger’s subversive Blair Witch 2 would have been one of the more prescient movies of the 2000s, but time and money constraints didn’t allow him to make the movie he wanted. Berlinger and co-writer Dick Beebe (1999’s House on Haunted Hill) eked out a script in time for the January production deadline and assembled a promising cast, which included a then-unknown Jeffrey Donovan as a nü-metal-styled Blair Witch tour guide, Kim Director as a goth bombshell, and Stephen Barker Turner and Tristine Skyler as two grad students researching mass hysteria. Berlinger remembers the cast being on his wavelength and delivering exactly what he needed to make Book of Shadows’ tonal experiment work. He also remembers being completely left alone by studio executives throughout the shoot in Baltimore.
“I literally had no studio supervision, except they kept telling me, looking at the dailies, ‘Love it, love it, keep going!’” he says. The reason is obvious to him now: The executives at Artisan had their eyes on bigger prizes. “They were taking Artisan public in this IPO craze based on the performance of Blair Witch. Those guys were just too busy counting their money before it came in.”
Berlinger wrapped on Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and quickly assembled a rough cut he “thought was terrific, and [he] was really happy with it.” As he locked picture and worked with composer Carter Burwell on the final score for the film in August 2000, just a few months shy of the planned October premiere, it felt like his team was about to pull off a minor miracle. There was a lot at stake. According to Berlinger, the planned six-country, 3,000-screen rollout was set to be one of the biggest worldwide releases of all time at that point — and the director wasn’t the only one feeling the pressure. Three months before release, a new marketing executive at Artisan, Amorette Jones, arrived on Berlinger’s doorstep with notes. Blair Witch 2 apparently needed more scares and more blood. “So they ordered reshoots and added things that just to this day boggle my mind,” he says.
The last-ditch effort to make Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 a generic splatterfest are very apparent while watching the movie. The film’s opening is blisteringly funny, with an unseen documentary crew interviewing Burkittsville locals about the Blair Witch frenzy, and Donovan going full townie creepster. The studio made Berlinger cut away to a scene of Donovan’s character being surveyed in a psych ward to create early unease, and it’s the one reshoot moment he thinks works — already, the protagonists’ perspectives are in question.
But it’s downhill from there. As Donovan’s Jeff leads a group of Blair Witch-inspired hunters on a trip into the woods, the movie violently volleys between two vibes: Berlinger’s slow-burn psychological descent, and bits straight out of the Saw movies. Sprinkled throughout the movie are bits of gore, excessive encounters with an unseen malignant force, and random flash-forwards to the police interviewing the group of 20-somethings about what happened out there in the woods. The flash-forwards were especially grating for Berlinger, whose entire plan was to follow the fanboying kids as paranoia festers into madness and murder. But the studio wanted to hurry up and get to the brutality.
“I cringe every time we go to those flashbacks,” Berlinger says. In his cut, the police interrogation of the tourists was a nine-minute reveal sequence at the end of the film. “You’re supposed to spend the whole film confused and thinking that the Blair Witch was a real possibility.”
Berlinger tried to push back on the edits, arguing “the whole point of the film, and the whole point of the Blair Witch legacy, is that all the violence happens off screen.” During one conversation with executive Amir Malan, the director invoked Alfred Hitchcock to explain why violence off screen could be as or more effective than the depiction of literal murder. As he recalls, Malan told him, “Our audience can barely spell ‘Hitchcock.’”
“Total disrespect for the audience,” Berlinger says. “So I hate to this day all those re-creation scenes of knife stabbings and whatever.”
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 hit theaters on Oct. 27, 2000, right on schedule. As a deflated Berlinger knows all too well, the movie was a critical failure — but not a financial one. The sequel made money, both in theatrical release — earning nearly $50 million on a $12 million budget — and home video. Of the many concessions Berlinger ultimately made during the making of the film, one that benefited the box office, was the decision to swap moodier music for jams of the times. While the director’s cut opened on swooping Paradise Lost-esque shots of Maryland trees set to Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft,” the theatrical cut replaces the crooning with Marilyn Manson’s “Disposable Teens.” Godhead, P.O.D., Rob Zombie, and System of a Down all found their way on the Blair Witch 2 soundtrack so Artisan could bundle a CD with the eventual DVD release. Berlinger believes the studio made $25 million on the bundle alone.
None of this eased Berlinger’s frustration over Blair Witch 2’s release. His name was still on a terrible movie, and only a few reviews stepped back far enough to see how a studio gunning to capitalize on hype might waylay a filmmaker attempting to say something substantial. The reactions ate away at him for weeks after the movie hit theaters, though today, the fire unleashed in his direction at least makes a bit more sense.
“I think any movie called Blair Witch 2 rushed out a year later… People just wanted to hate the movie,” he says. “I underestimated the amount of venom that anything called Blair Witch 2 was going to have.”
Time has been kind to Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, though Berlinger can’t quite shake the curse. The movie sits with a bleak 14% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But if the man once paralyzed by the experience of directing the damn thing can reconsider and watch it again, maybe audiences will, too. He still believes, through all the studio-mandated excess, the film has something to say about the moment.
“I think the movie predicted what’s happening now,” he says. “That blurring of the line between news and entertainment, between fact and fiction, has gotten to the point where our society is deeply dysfunctional. Congress is dysfunctional, for example, because a lot of people who have been elected to Congress have been elected because they have a very different version of reality from their constituents. We’re a country that can’t agree on what color the sky is. We’re in the middle of this Israeli-Hamas horror show, and there is so much misinformation and disinformation and fake videos. That is the era we live in. And that tendency, that blurring of the line between fiction and reality, was what I was going for in Blair Witch .
“There were a lot of really smart ideas that were ahead of its time, but the studio at the 12th hour got scared. I think that’s what people are seeing.”