Back in the good ol' days, we used to draw a strange kind of comfort from that line. Fantasy might hold sway in the dark night of a movie theater, but it surrendered to reality in the clear light of day. Alas, this was before Scream, The Blair Witch Project and MTV's "Fear"--exercises in terror that bury the line between fantasy and reality, then dance on the grave. We live at a time when dramatic reenactments have more reality than the events they're dramatically reenacting. Why more real? Because they've been recorded for playback. And horror maestros have been really working the no-man's-land between the Pause and the Rewind button. The question is, where do horror movies go from here? How do they press forward? Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 seems to be suffering from a bad case of sequelitis, as well it might. The original was less a movie than a phenomenon, a cultural virus that coursed through the Internet's bloodstream, infected cable television and left millions of viewers shaking their heads, either in disbelief or in belief. In retrospect, the whole thing seems less like a "War of the Worlds"-style hoax than like a Harvard Business School case study in www.com hype. Planting disinformation on the Web, the movie's distributor, Artisan, may have invented a new way of selling, blurring the line between reality and marketing. And what they were selling, basically, was an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" (without Robert Stack). Not that the creators of The Blair Witch Project don't deserve credit for having triumphed over the limited means at their disposal. Who else would have thought to send three no-name actors into the woods to shoot the movie for them, improvising the script as they went along? And who else would have realized, when they viewed the raw footage, that, in this age of reality-based entertainment, there's nothing quite as--what's the right word?--terrifying as raw footage? The best horror directors know that, to really scare us, you don't have to show us frightening things, you just have to show us frightened people. The creators of Blair Witch added a twist to that formula: frightened people videotaping themselves. Call it "America's Scariest Home Video." So, what do you do for an encore? Director Joe Berlinger appears to have lost a lot of sleep producing the answer to that question. At first glance, Berlinger, a documentary filmmaker, seems an inspired choice to replace Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez (who are reportedly working on Blair Witch 3, a prequel). Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which Berlinger made with Bruce Sinofsky, was like a real-life Blair Witch project--an Arkansas witch-hunt in which the filmmakers suddenly became part of the story when one of the victims' stepfather presented them with a hunting knife as a present. The knife, which had blood on it, later made an appearance at the trial. Obviously, Berlinger knows a thing or two about the power of video. If only he knew a few more things about the power of film. In a desperate attempt to defeat our expectations (whatever those were), Berlinger shot Book of Shadows as a glossy 35-millimeter film, thereby pitching the original's whole raison d'être. And that's not all. He and co-scriptwriter Dick Beebe have conceived Book of Shadows as a morality tale about the difference--or lack of difference--between film and video. "Film lies," one of the characters says. "Video tells the truth." And you can practically see the word "THEME" appear above his head. The thing is, we all know that film and video both lie. Right now, it's the Internet, that maelstrom of truth, half-truth, gossip and outright falsehood, that has us wondering who or what to believe in. Berlinger has tried to incorporate all this into his media critique. "I wanted to make a sequel to the phenomenon, not to the movie," he told Entertainment Weekly. And so the five no-name actors who head into the woods this time (trailed by a professional film crew) are playing characters who supposedly saw the original when it came out last year. "This is a fictionalized reenactment of events occurring after the release of The Blair Witch Project," we're told at the beginning of the movie. And though the phrase "fictionalized reenactment"--redundant or oxymoron?--provides a frisson of postmod something or other, we start mentally preparing ourselves for yet another trip up a movie's self-referential navel. It's not long before we're covered in belly-button lint. Like grunts in a war-movie foxhole, the characters represent the various groups that responded to The Blair Witch Project. There's an Elvira wannabe, a Wiccan earth goddess, a pair of almost-married grad students who are writing a book called The Blair Witch: History or Hysteria? and the guy who, for a fee, is leading the others to the actual place where...well, where something happened. Book of Shadows never makes it clear whether the characters believe just the original movie was a fake or the movie and the legends it was based on were a fake. Whatever they believe, they return to the scene of the crime, armed with videocameras, booze and dope. Then the (lack of) fun begins. After partying well into the night, these "Scooby-Doo" rejects wake up the next morning and realize none of them can account for the last five hours. Luckily, it's all on video. And when they head back to the tour guide's abandoned-factory abode to watch the video, strange things start to happen. They have hallucinations, sometimes communal hallucinations. Welts appear on their bodies. And the tapes, run backwards--that's right, Satan worshipers, backwards--reveal a devil's sabbath of sex, murder and ritual mutilation. Actually, Berlinger has been flash-forwarding to the sex, murder and ritual mutilation from the beginning, and to interrogation scenes in which the surviving characters basically say, "Don't look at me. I didn't write the script." Don't look at me, I didn't write it either. But my favorite moment in the movie is when the two grad students realize that the paper-confetti storm everybody wakes up to after the night to remember is the shredded research for their book. Yes, they've hauled their research with them into the Black Hills of Maryland. On paper, no less. And they don't have a backup on hard or floppy disk. Holy Gutenberg, Batman! The script is full of such moments, and one of the movie's chief pleasures is watching the actors try to put them over. Though unknowns, all five seem ready for their close-ups, Mr. DeMille--future residents of Beverly Hills, if not "Beverly Hills 90210." But if I were them, I wouldn't give up the apartment in Wichita just yet.
So that's what it all comes down to. Instead of fear of the unknown, we get fear of unknowns. Not that it's the actors' fault. Book of Shadows started heading downhill when Artisan, with one eye on its upcoming IPO, rushed this project through pre- and post-production. "It's unbelievable," Berlinger told Entertainment Weekly. "We did 18 months of work in about nine." I believe it. And it's a pity because the original Blair Witch had its finger on something--a kind of societal queasiness about the horrible stuff that can show up on videotape these days. For whatever reasons, Berlinger decided to turn that into a philosophical, if blood-drenched, meditation on the relative truth value of film and video. Oh well, it's only a movie.