Released just before Halloween in 2000, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was the hotly anticipated follow-up to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, a found-footage horror film which used then-pioneering Internet marketing and its students-lost-in-the-woods setup to essentially perpetuate a hoax – that what audiences were seeing on the big screen actually happened. It was fake news before fake news even existed.
During our Zoom conversation to mark the 20th anniversary of Blair Witch 2, director Joe Berlinger says he wanted the sequel to make fun of — and interrogate — the hoopla. “There was this real-life phenomenon, where the movie was super-successful and despite the evidence before their eyes, people were convinced it was real. Why not play with that idea?” he explains. “It’s a satire on the dangers of blurring the lines between fiction and reality. I admit it was a lofty goal for a sequel to a found-footage movie… maybe that was my mistake, nobody wanted to hear those things.”
20 years ago, critics lined up to kick Blair Witch 2 in the teeth. Shockingly, Berlinger had discarded the original’s aesthetic – a mix of spooky black-and-white 16mm and the ridiculous but effective shaky-cam – and shot big and wide in 35mm, resulting in a more cinematic effect. His satirical intentions didn’t matter. The knives were out, and it was carving time.
Across the board, reviewers called it the biggest horror stinker since John Boorman’s 1977 sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic. Berlinger’s film currently stands at a pitiful 14% on Rotten Tomatoes score and 3.9 out of 10 on IMDb. It actually did decent box office business ($47.7m from a reported $15m budget) and earned a ton more on DVD. Unfortunately, the overriding narrative among fans was that it sucked. To add insult to injury, Berlinger got screwed around by the production company, Artisan Entertainment.
The first sign of trouble was a non-negotiable release date: October 27, 2000. This gave Berlinger less than 12 months to write, shoot and oversee post-production. It was an “insane” ask, he says. Alarm bells should have been ringing, but it wasn’t until a month or two before release that Artisan got involved properly. He was left alone during the actual shoot — “the executives didn’t even show up on set” — but in the run-up to opening night everything suddenly changed. Artisan demanded edits and in doing so wrecked the movie, though Berlinger concedes his own cut would likely have been met with derision. “I can’t say that my director’s cut of Blair Witch 2 would have been received any differently, because there was tremendous venom about any kind of sequel,” says Berlinger. “But at least you know you’re being lambasted for your own vision and not somebody else’s. There were things done to the movie that were tonally incongruous to what I was originally attempting to do.”
Artisan inserted generic horror elements into a movie that didn’t warrant them. In recutting the film, they destroyed its thematic ambiguity; turned Jeffrey Donovan’s mentally ill lead protagonist into the villain; reordered scenes and added a lame opening message which stated the drama about to unfold was a reconstruction of actual events. They also ordered Berlinger to go back and add lashings of gore, served in close-up. “They were betraying the heritage of the first film, in portraying violence. There was no actual violence in the first film,” he says. “I was so angry at how it was put into a meat grinder [by Artisan]. They tried to morph it into a traditional horror movie when I was trying to do something much more intelligent. I was too young in my career to assert myself… I objected and made a public statement before the movie came out, that they did things to it that I don’t agree with, but I kind of went along with it. I lost the battle.”
Today, Berlinger still smarts from Artisan’s treatment and the press drubbing, though with a sense of humour that comes from subsequent career highs. He bounced back with highly-acclaimed Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster (2004), before returning to feature filmmaking last year with Zac Efron serial killer thriller Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The memory still hurts though. “I didn’t even realise it was the 20th anniversary. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years … it’s mind-boggling to me,” he says. “It was such a painful experience.”