Franchise Killers: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
It’s hard to overstate the impact that The Blair Witch Project had when it was released in 1999. The no-budget found-footage horror movie became an overnight sensation. Even if no-budget found-footage horror movies where young people get lost in the woods and are menaced by rocks and twigs weren’t your thing, there was no escaping the Blair Witch phenomenon. The image of a runny-nosed Heather Donahue speaking directly into her camera became one of the most satirized moments in cinema. The Blair Witch was up there with The Matrix and The Sixth Sense as one of the most influential movies of the year.
It was also among the most profitable movies ever made. With a budget of less than a million dollars, The Blair With Project grossed close to a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide. That’s some crazy return on investment right there. So it’s understandable at that executives at Artisan wanted a sequel right away. The pencil pushers had a plan for a series of Blair Witch movies released every October just in time for Halloween. There was only one problem. Absolutely nothing about The Blair Witch Project would work a second time.
No matter what you thought about the first movie (“over-hyped” is a word that comes to my mind) you have to be at least a little impressed with its ingenuity. A couple of novice filmmakers with almost no resources went out into the woods and made a movie starring complete unknowns and succeeded on a level that A-list directors only dream of.
You would think, having struck gold on their first attempt, that co-writers and directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez would have been eager to cash in. But when Artisan came calling for a Blair Witch sequel, the creators of the original film passed on it. According to Myrick, they felt it was best to wait until some of the Blair Witch mania had died down. But the accountants at Artisan, the MBAs who somehow find themselves making decisions about supposedly creative endeavors, well, they knew better than the two guys who spent years developing the product they intended to mass produce.
“Strike while the iron is hot!” was the mantra. So Artisan decided to proceed with a Blair Witch sequel without the involvement of anyone who had been associated with the success of the original. The first movie had performed so well, the Artisan brass was confident that anything with the Blair Witch name would be a can’t miss money-maker. They already had plans for a third film.
When it came time to choose a director for Blair Witch 2 (the “Electric Boogaloo” is implied), the studio made an unconventional choice. Instead of hiring an established genre director, they went with Joe Berlinger. Berlinger was a documentary filmmaker best known for his series, Paradise Lost which recounts the legal battles of three teenagers wrongfully convicted of murder.
From the beginning, Berlinger and the Artisan higher-ups didn’t see eye to eye. Berlinger saw his movie as a relatively goreless psychological thriller that would comment on social issues like violence in the media and the dangers of groupthink. The Artisan guys wanted a blood-soaked horror movie they could sell to the teens on Halloween weekend. Preferably a cheap one.
The one thing that everyone involved agreed upon was that you couldn’t just make another Blair Witch. The things that were scary in the first movie had become the stuff of satire in the intervening year. The sequel would have to find a way to tie into the premise of the original while also being radically different. The solution was to make the Blair Witch sequel into the most meta horror movie ever made.
Blair Witch 2 starts off with a series of clips of media reaction to the first movie. When your sequel starts out with Ebert and Siskle’s review of its predecessor you have pretty much shattered any illusion that what you are watching might be based on fact. Which, not for nothing, was a major selling point of the first movie.
The story sees a group of tourists gathering in Burkittsville, Maryland where the original movie was shot. A mercenary pothead played by Jeffrey Donovan has decided to make a quick buck on the legend of the Blair Witch by selling tours of the woods where the movie was filmed. If Donovan is a stand-in for the execs at Artisan, his customers represent different factions of the original Blair Witch audience. There’s a Wiccan and a goth and a couple of intellectuals. The group goes out into the woods to camp in the Rustin Parr house where the original movie had its ambiguous ending.
Book of Shadows aims for some level of ambiguity as well. Or at least, that’s what Berlinger is trying to accomplish. After a night of wild partying, the tourists wake up and realize that something has happened. But all of them have blacked out and no one can remember who did what. Whether or not anything supernatural has occurred could be left to the audience’s imagination (as it was with the first movie). But Artisan didn’t like that idea. So instead, they shoehorned in as many genre tropes as they could squeeze in to their budget.
What made the original Blair Witch into a pop culture phenomenon was that it was unlike anything else. But the studio couldn’t take chances on a movie that was different. They wanted the relative safety of a proven horror formula. So weeks before the movie was released, they demanded extensive reshoots to add the gore and violence that the horror fans supposedly crave. The original cut of the film opened with Frank Sinatra’s song, Witchcraft. But the studio replaced Ol’ Blue Eyes with Marilyn Manson so the Blair Witch sequel could feel exactly like every other horror movie in theaters.
Not surprisingly, the studio guys were proven wrong. Whether or not Berlinger’s vision for the movie would have worked, we will never know. All we can know for sure is that the executives who made every decision based on risk-aversion ended up making a sequel that flopped. The plans for an annual Blair Witch series were scrapped. Hopefully some of the suits who were trying to protect their jobs were fired, but who am I kidding? If they were, they probably got hired at a studio down the road.
Artisan Entertainment didn’t last much longer after that. In 2003, it was bought up by Lions Gate. Following the success of Blair Witch Artisan overspent releasing one bomb after another. Eventually, they just got gobbled up.
Let’s break this down:
How many movies in the series? 2
How many of them were good? 1 – Good is debatable, but the first one was undeniably influential
Health of the franchise before it died? Strong
Likelihood of a reboot? Slim, other found footage movies have become what a Blair Witch franchise might have been
Any redeeming value? No snot-nosed confessionals directly into the camera?