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Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2   D

Artisan Entertainment

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joe Berlinger
Writers: Joe Berlinger, Dick Beebe
Cast: Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristen Skyler, Stephen Barker Turner, Lanny Flaherty.

Review by Rob Vaux

Has it come to this? Has the overwhelming capitalistic orgy surrounding The Blair Witch Project finally capped out? Judging by the confused, pathetic mess they're calling a sequel, it certainly looks like it. Book of Shadows (a title that has very little to do with the film it's attached to) seemingly sounds a death knell for this overhyped marketing phenomenon, and not a moment too soon. Whatever joys the first movie contained have been all but buried beneath the glut of Blair Witch T-shirts, key chains, and calendars. It takes a lousy follow-up to end such a marketing frenzy, and Book of Shadows fits the bill to a tee.

The original Blair Witch Project was certainly overrated, but it benefited from a unique style and an underdog image that lifted it above most horror fare. It scored a real coup by turning its budgetary shortcomings into a stylistic asset, using a mock-documentary approach to convey a real sense of menace in those Maryland woods. Book of Shadows never matches that feat, falling back instead on a strange combination of documentary and Hollywood techniques that never hits its stride.

Credit the producers at least for not resting on their laurels. Book of Shadows tries to recreate the unique feeling of the first film without merely copying it, an admirable intention which goes badly wrong. The trouble starts with the choice of directors: Joe Berlinger, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker whose work includes Brother's Keeper and the two Paradise Lost films -- some of the best documentaries of recent years. Presumably, the use of a docu-director is intended to recapture the neo-realistic tone of the first film while putting a more professional polish on the proceedings. Unfortunately, his skills don't translate well from one genre to the other, resulting in an awkward amalgamation of tone and theme.

In the first few minutes, the film works to blur the lines between fiction and reality, showing the town of Burkittsville, Maryland overwhelmed by fans of the first film who want to see where it all took place. Many of the locals are taking advantage of the hype, selling Blair Witch rocks, stick figures, and T-shirts. The amusing beginning quickly focuses on a single Blair Witch tour group -- led by a former mental patient (Jeff Donovan) -- who troops into the woods for a look at the "genuine" sites from the film. Naturally, they take with them an extensive array of recording equipment in hopes catching a glimpse of the fabled witch. After a booze-filled evening around the campfire, the group wakes up to find their notes and cameras destroyed, one of them hemorrhaging from a miscarriage, and a four-hour gap in their collective memories. They promptly retreat to their tour guide's dilapidated residence in hopes that his videotapes will shed some light on their dilemma, unaware that the evil has followed them home.

The difficulties with this scenario become apparent early on. The characters themselves feel shallow and fake: there's the Goth Chick With A Chip On Her Shoulder, the Pretentious College Student Writing A Paper, the Wiccan Out To Prove That Her Religion Isn't Evil, and a gaggle of other easy-to-digest templates which never grow beyond a one-sentence summary. The actors all find their respective note and bang it with resolute solemnity, making it hard to care about them at all, let alone feel scared when the fireworks start. It becomes even more difficult when we try to puzzle out the danger threatening them. It's apparent that something went badly wrong for them in those woods, but we never know exactly what: the nature of the threat remains irritatingly unclear. While the first film used that uncertainty to conjure up a feeling of monstrous evil, the sequel only succeeds in baffling its audience. Without a basic understanding of the perils the characters face, we can't feel any suspense over their fate; we're too busy trying to figure out what the hell they're scared of.

Berlinger's approach to the material doesn't help matters. He clearly wants to play with the confusion the original Blair Witch created over its factual accuracy, but his efforts only further darken the already muddy waters. Book of Shadows never makes it clear exactly how much of the established mythology it buys: while it freely acknowledges that the first film was fiction ("I thought the movie was cool," one character intones), it speaks of the backstory -- the history of the witch and the area at large -- as if it were gospel truth. Many of the references will be lost on those not already familiar with the mythos, and the film's maddening inability to decide which tidbits are real (and therefore important) confounds every effort to make sense of it. After trying half-heartedly to produce some kind of unified whole, it eventually devolves into a self-reflexive "is it a movie or isn't it?" theme that every horror movie since Scream seems incapable of resisting. Nothing here illuminates, nothing is new or different, and nothing unsettles us the way it clearly wants to.

You get the sneaking suspicion at times that Berlinger is trying to say Something Very Important -- he makes a lot out of the characters' videotapes, for example, and their fallacious assumption that recordings can discern the truth. But when placed in the middle of a mess like this, it only highlights how badly his efforts have misfired. Everyone involved with Book of Shadows is presumably capable of doing better, but you wouldn't know it from the work on display. It's sad that the overblown success of one plucky little horror film could produce such a nightmare, but there it is. Book of Shadows never escapes the marketing overkill which produced it in the first place, leaving it a pathetic coda to an already exhausted fad.

Review published 11.05.2000.

For another opinion, read Jeremiah Kipp's review.

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