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Trouble Brewing Over a Sequel

The buzz has not been kind to 'Blair Witch 2,' but the film's director hopes he can change minds.

September 10, 2000|CHRISTOPHER NOXON | Christopher Noxon is a regular contributor to Calendar

Joe Berlinger is a month away from the release of his first dramatic feature film, but he's not gearing up for the usual round of film festival screenings and promotional hustles. Instead, he's bracing for an onslaught of criticism.

"It seems like everyone is predisposed to hate this movie," says the 37-year-old director. "No matter what this ends up being, it seems like a good portion of the population is ready to complain about it."

Such is the dilemma when your first big movie happens to be the sequel to one of the most hyped and profitable horror hits in movie history. "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2," which opens Oct. 27, has already ignited a furious debate among movie buffs, who have unloaded on Internet bulletin boards with a torrent of snap judgments, furious rants and cries of sellout. Meanwhile, a teaser trailer released in theaters in June was reportedly greeted with scattered boos and popcorn pitched at screens.

Never mind that no one has actually seen the movie. "There's a huge backlash brewing," he concedes. "It's like coming out with 'Rocky Horror 2.' Following up on a cultural phenomenon is a very tricky business."

Some of that sourness is simply spillover from the original, the jittery little stunt of a picture that became a pop culture event, grossing $250 million worldwide, landing the creators and stars on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and inspiring a wave of lampoons and Digital-Beta imitators. While fans praised "The Blair Witch Project" for its originality, refreshing lack of gore and visceral depiction of fear, many moviegoers emerged feeling baffled, queasy or just plain ripped-off.

"I hear 'Blair Witch' was made with $30,000," Chris Rock joked at the MTV Movie Awards. "Someone's walking around with $29,000 in his pocket."

Even as they reveled in the receipts from the original, executives at Artisan Entertainment took those complaints to heart. When directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick bowed out of the sequel--the two are credited as executive producers on "Book of Shadows" while they work on a comedy titled "Heart of Love"--Artisan executives pondered several scenarios for the follow-up, most employing the same low-tech, shaky-cam trickery that made "Blair Witch" so startling.


But in a choice typical of the inside-out logic that has guided the sequel, Artisan elected to be original by being conventional.

"Book of Shadows" is in most ways a typical horror movie, shot on 35-millimeter film with a budget of $10 million, a few product placements and generous helpings of digital effects and on-screen violence. None of the original cast members is back, but the story revolves around the same intricate mythology created by "Blair Witch."

"We wanted this one to deliver in a different way," says Amorette Jones, executive vice president of worldwide marketing at Artisan. "The first movie didn't deliver the blood and big payoff scenes that people expect. We wanted this one to cater to those commercial tastes while staying true to the spirit of the first one."

Taking another risk, Artisan turned over the controls of its money train to Berlinger, a documentary filmmaker with one independent film ("Brother's Keeper") and two HBO specials ("Paradise Lost" and "Revelations: Paradise Lost 2") to his credit. Berlinger was tapped to write and direct the sequel after pitching studio executives his own screenplay, a horror movie titled "The Little Fellow in the Attic," about a socialite killed by a man who has secretly lived in his house for 17 years.

"I came in to pitch this movie at precisely the right moment," he says. "But after meeting with me a few times, it became clear that I was being interviewed for something else entirely," he says.

While the choice of Berlinger is undoubtedly a gamble, it does follow the logic that Artisan hopes will help generate buzz around the sequel. The original "Blair Witch" was a faux documentary made by aspiring feature filmmakers. It's somehow fitting therefore that the follow-up feature is being made by a documentary filmmaker, one not unlike the young ghoul-chasers who were the focus of the first film.

No one was more surprised by the choice than Berlinger. "I always imagined my first feature would be a little Sundance movie," he says. "I expected to make the kind of movie that opens on five or six screens and hopefully shows people I can be trusted with a bigger budget. So it's sort of bizarre that I'm doing a movie that not only has the burden of being the follow-up to one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the last decade, but is also opening on 4,000 screens in six countries. It's a little intimidating, to say the least."

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