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BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2

“I think something terrible’s happened to her,” a character intones about one of his colleagues who’s mysteriously disappeared about two-thirds of the way through “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” Joe Berlinger’s sequel to last year’s summer smash. The remark is prophetic but entirely too limited: something awful has befallen absolutely everybody associated with this muddled mess of a movie. If you took a few rolls of film, dumped them into a blender, turned on the power, let it run for a bit, extracted the celluloid remnants, slapped them onto a projector and screened the result, you’d get something similar to it. (Seven monkeys working in a closed room would probably do better.) “This makes no sense,” a different character comments at another point in the flick. Truer words were never spoken.

One reaches such a conclusion reluctantly, because Berlinger has previously collaborated with Bruce Sinofsky on some of the best American documentaries of the 1990s: the extraordinary “Brother’s Keeper” (1992) and the two HBO productions “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (1996) and “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (2000). But his first dramatic feature indicates that he should have stuck to the non-fiction format. That fact that Berlinger is also (at least partially) responsible for the script makes the fiasco all the more regrettable.

As has become customary it this age of post-modern horror, the picture is, like the “Scream” series and its ilk, self-referential. The twist in this instance is that rather than treating the events of the first “Witch” as real occurrences, the plot depicts the original flick as an explosive cultural phenomenon, a fictional narrative which persuaded millions that it was true. So as the sequel opens, we find the town of Burkittsville inundated with tourists; in response some residents have sought to profit from its new celebrity. One of them, Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), an unstable fellow who’s spent time in a mental institution, has created a “Blair Witch Hunt,” in which he promises to lead a tour of sites supposedly associated with the gruesome doings of Part One. In the inaugural trip he carries four paying passengers: the Wiccan Erica (Erica Leerhsen), psychic Goth girl Kim (Kim Director), and two romantically-attached grad students, Tristen and Stephen (Tristen Skyler and Stephen Baker Turner), who are researching a book on the legend and its aftermath. The group makes camp on the ruins on the old house at which the first picture closed, but after waking in the morning they find the area ransacked and themselves with no memory of what transpired overnight. Repairing to a decrepit old warehouse that Jeff calls home, they try to reconstruct the lost hours using video tapes made during them that have been mysteriously recovered; the investigation leads to murder, mayhem and madness, and includes recollections of the mass slaughter of another group of tourists, various apparitions, the killing of a local clerk, the disappearance of one of their own members, and instances of what seem to be possession.

This precis, however, makes the movie seem far more cohorent than it actually is, because the narrative is presented not in a straight linear fashion, but in a confused melange marked by abrupt chronological shifts, sporadic (and gruesome) inserts, and hazy fantasy sequences. The first ten minutes, presented in a mockumentary style similar to that used in the phony documentaries on the first film shown on the SciFi Network and Showtime, are wryly amusing, but then the picture becomes a complete mishmash of gore, inexplicable role-changing and pointless dramatic reversals. The intent is to raise existential questions, playing the old reality-vs.-illusion game by blurring the distinction between truth and fantasy while simultaneously offering satirical observations about the overlapping of fact and fiction and the notion that artistic violence begets the real-life variety. All of this is suggested by the use of the word “shadows” in the title, which seems meant to point out the fallibility not only of human memory as a reflection of actuality but also of our modern instruments of recording the past (video tape, digital cameras and the like), which might prove as unreliable as our own faculties. (A “book of shadows” is also a sort of Wiccan diary in which an adherent records experiences, spells, recipes, charms and the like, and the phrase once again calls to mind the act of remembering, which, the script wants to imply, is often deeply flawed.) But while all of these issues could be potentially intriguing, the script raises them in so arbitrary, slapdash a dramatic form that its take on them becomes mystifying in the worst sense. Simply put, when a film follows no narrative rules, implying that what we’ve already seen need not have happened at all and rewriting moments we’ve already witnessed in an entirely different way without sense or explanation, the result ceases to be a pleasurable puzzle and degenerates into a fruitless and frustrating exercise, a random assemblage of chaotic bits lacking rhyme or reason. When, moreover, the denouement arrives, it proves even flatter than that of the original–which dismayed many viewers the first time around (although, to be fair, the first picture was a model of clarity compared to this one). One can almost hear a collective “Huh?” emerging from the audience as the movie ends.

Even with all these problems, “Book of Shadows” might still have provided some junky fun if it had been made with even a hint of professionalism. It’s not only poorly directed and edited, however, but the various technical credits are distinctly sub-par: the lighting is poor, the cinematography irritatingly artsy, the sound mix clumsy. Even the music score by Carter Burwell, a talented fellow, is utterly forgettable. And the acting is terrible across the board. Though the five “hunters” would be a tad too old to be in a “Friday the 13th” flick, they exhibit roughly the same degree of skill as the youngsters in those trash epics–that is, they’re slight below ordinary community-theatre standards. But even they, as bad as they are, pale beside Lanny Flaherty, playing the gruff sheriff who’s Jeff’s great nemesis. Flaherty actually has a substantial resume, having appeared in some respectable features; but in the present case he seems to be doing a Slim Pickens impersonation of the broadest sort–indeed, Sheriff Cravens makes Ol’ Slim’s Colonel “King” Kong seem positively restrained and subtle a creation. Perhaps the awful acting and slipshod construction are intended to turn “Book of Shadows” into some sort of grisly comedy with horror elements. But if so, the attempt fails in both respects; the picture is neither scary enough to be a true thriller nor sharp enough to be genuinely funny. The only laughs it elicits are chortles of derision rather than affection, and the only shudders reactions of disgust rather than bemused fright.

“Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” is likely to divide viewers into three groups. Those who loved the first film will doubtlessly consider it an insult to what they consider a classic. Those who disliked the original will find this one even worse. And those who didn’t see the initial “Witch” won’t have the slightest idea of what’s going on as the new flick completes its sloppy narrative. Perhaps the relatives of its makers might find something vaguely positive to say about the picture, but even that seems doubtful. The only thing certain is that after a disaster of such magnitude, this is one cinematic franchise that’s going to have to be put on immediate life support if it’s going to have any chance of surviving to a third installment.

BEAUTIFUL

“Beautiful” isn’t. Sally Field’s directorial debut is a hopelessly mirthless, intensely irritating comedy-drama that wants to say something about the cult of surface attractiveness and celebrity prevalent in today’s society, but garbles whatever message it has in mind so badly that it’s nearly unwatchable.

The star of this misbegotten women’s picture is the personable Minnie Driver, who plays Mona Hibbard, a young woman who, since her earliest years, has dreamt of winning beauty contests and expended virtually all of her time and energy to that end. Unfortunately, from the perspective of audience sympathy, Mona is portrayed as nothing more than a self-centered shrew, who, when she becomes pregnant, palms off the child on her footstool of a best friend Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams, acting like a bargain-basement Renee Zellweger), who raises the kid as hers. Even more unfortunately, the child, named Vanessa, grows up to become Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the kid from the “Pepsi” commercials, whose shrill, piercing performance is the cinematic equivalent of a paper cut; though Vanessa is supposed to be a darling, one of those bright moppets who put adults to shame, as Eisenberg plays her she comes across as one of the most unendearing, annoying tykes to find their way to the screen in a long while. (One hates to say it, but you can almost understand why Mona dumps her.)

Anyway, the plot sickens when Mona, who’s unaccountably chosen as Miss Illinois, prepares to go off to the national competition, only to find herself saddled with Vanessa when false mom Ruby is jailed (wrongly, of course) for–get this!–aiding in the suicide of a patient at the nursing home where she works. The denouement has Mona inevitably finding her long-dormant maternal instinct as the beauty pageant winds its way to a completely ridiculous “uplifting” outcome.

Nothing works in “Beautiful.” The dismal work of the three leads is complemented by equally bad turns from such figures as Kathleen Turner (as a grande dame who runs local pageants), Leslie Stefanson (as an ambitious reporter who aims to unmask Mona), Bridgette Wilson (as the inevitable Miss Texas–her last major flick was the equally dreadful “Love Stinks”), and Michael McKean (as the pageant director). Jon Bernstein’s script manages to be both cruelly unfunny and crudely sentimental, garnering nary a smile or a tear, and Field’s direction is at best of TV-movie quality. Natives of Illinois should be especially distessed by the picture, which portrays Naperville as a hick town of unimaginable proportions, and has Mona, in one of her appearances at the final pageant, dress up in a phony Indian costume that would rightfully draw condemnations of ethnic insensitivity if a contestant in such an event ever had the temerity to wear it.

Maybe you’ll be able to get through “Beautiful” and still find Miss Field a fairly likable person, despite what she’s foisted upon you. But as for the movie itself–you’ll hate it, you’ll really hate it.