Studio meddling and directorial straw-grasping really hammered the coffin nails into Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the viciously derided, multi-media sequel to one of the biggest (and most profitable) film phenomenons in history. Whether necessary or not, someone was bound to make a follow-up to The Blair Witch Project; the tricky part was how to do it. From a distance, the most laughable decisions made by Artisan Entertainment, which hastily hurried the sequel’s production while high on the first film’s success, involve silly, superficial adherences to The Blair Witch Project’s faux-doc qualities. Soldiering forward without the blessings of first-installment directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (who reluctantly remained attached as executive producers), the studio hired a documentarian (Paradise Lost helmer Joe Berlinger), and endorsed the hiring of unknown actors like Erica Leerhsen, Tristen Skylar, and Stephen Barker Turner, who, in a worthless nod to Heather Donahue and company’s ostensible self-portrayals, have the barely-tweaked character names Erica Geerson, Tristen Ryler, and Stephen Ryan Parker. Since Book of Shadows, in plot and format, largely and clearly operates as a traditional narrative film, shot predominantly in 35 mm and acknowledging its predecessor as a fiction, such choices feel more like frivolous insults than attempts to retain the original’s spirit. The sequel itself might have some intriguing thoughts about mixed perceptions of reality, but there was no sense trying to keep up the ruse that anything about the Blair Witch brand is factual.
Book of Shadows—which is named after a kind of of Wiccan bible, but, as Roger Ebert observed in his review, contains no actual book of shadows—begins with a brief mockumentary highlighting Blair Witch Project fever, with clips of media reactions from folks like Ebert himself, and interviews with actual residents of Burkittsville, Maryland, where Myrick and Sanchez shot their no-budget gem in 1998. It then pauses to introduce the misguided, mental-asylum backstory of cast leader Jeffrey Patterson (Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donnovan), before finally commencing the movie proper, which follows five rabid fans—video-savvy Jeff, peacfeul Wiccan Erica, researcher couple Tristen and Stephen, and goth psychic Kim Diamond (Kim Director)—as they venture into the dreaded Black Hills Forest, where the original trio screamed their guts out, and where tours are now regular conducted by folks like Jeff. Camping out at the cabin ruins where all that famous, shaky-cam footage was “found,” the quintet drink, smoke, and crack jokes around a fire (“How many Heather Donahues does it take to screw in a light bulb? JUUUSSSST OOOONNNEE!!!!!”), before blacking out and waking up to find their site and stuff trashed, along with some curious footage of their own.
The film’s most egregious flaws are freely (and somewhat hilariously) pointed out by Berlinger in his DVD commentary track. The director (who co-wrote the script with Dick Beebe) explains that the tacky shots of campside gore that frequently interrupt the action, as well as the police interrogations that break up the film’s chronology, were entirely forced upon him by the studio, in an effort to “raise the stakes” and create a more commercial type of horror film. In his original cut, he says, the malfeasance that’s ultimately tied together was reserved exclusively for the finale, and the B-grade shots of corn-syrup gooeyness weren’t included at all (in regard to the disagreement, he quips, “But what do I know? I’m just the director”). To Berlinger’s credit, the cut he describes sounds like an extremely superior work, amounting to minimalistic shocks and abrupt, disturbing ends similar to those in The Blair Witch Project. Berlinger was, in fact, an inspired choice to helm this movie, not because he’s simply a documentarian, but because his signature documentary is about youths tied up in grisly circumstances, and about media’s influence on consumer perceptions. The two themes Book of Shadows aims to explore are group hysteria (which Stephen says leads to “collective delusion”), and the different receptions of different types of media, specifically film versus video. “Video never lies Kim,” Jeff says early on. “Film does, though.” This statement becomes the knife’s edge on which the rest of the movie teeters, and the audience is ultimately offered two different visions of the same story, each one through a different lens. The 35 mm visuals, naturally, play out as if they’re showing events as they happened, but then there’s the contrasting inclusion of various surveillance footage and Jeff’s own videos, which were initially meant to document potential “paranormal activity” (snicker), and are then scoured for answers about what went down when the crew blacked out.
Even in this age when the idea of film as a definable medium is itself ambiguous, Berlinger and Beebe’s conceit is cool and provocative, and a 2000 film that examines the hysteria of another film via the further hysteria that develops among those obsessed with that film must be some kind of meta milestone. And there are some deft, genuine shocks to relish here. The scene in which Jeff discovers his own tapes is a brief, but wonderfully sustained bit of layered dread, with Kim tearfully distraught that she somehow knew where to find them, Erica boisterously befuddled as to why a rival tour group— who, initially, are blamed for all that’s happened—would trash everything but the footage, and pregnant Tristen suddenly suffering a miscarriage, which is revealed by blood that she smears on her face with a hand that had been resting on her crotch. In its own haphazard way, the ending, too, is something of a doozy, upending assumptions and showing gusto in its murky, psychological nastiness.
But the remarkable, culturally astute thriller that might have existed here is buried deep, like a stack of dirty DV tapes, suppressed by Artisan’s money-grubbing and Berlinger’s own unrestrained grandiloquence. The director’s thesis is strong, but, be it original cut or pasteurized product, his execution, in general, is not. Beyond the interspersed, studio-enforced bits, Book of Shadows’s 35 mm content is packed with useless symbolism and a veritable pile-on of unexplainable happenings, all to drill in the established notion that shit ain’t right in those woods. Objects like vehicles are mysteriously destroyed then magically reformed, visual Easter eggs are randomly scattered throughout (like the word “No” inexplicably smeared on a grimy window pane), and multiple hallucinations, like Kim feasting on an owl or Stephen and Erica engaging in S&M, are rampant, implying a poor taste level similar to that which Berlinger condemns in his commentary. To boot, the director goes mad with his incongruous glut of strained horror homage, merging Rosemary’s Baby satanic rituals and Cuckoo’s Nest med-staff maniacs with the Exorcist-plucked idea of playing something backwards in order to gather answers. Suggesting that Berlinger wanted to cram all his influences into his (potentially) single shot at a narrative feature, it’s all so much more than this movie can warrant or support. It proves that even before Artisan got its bloody hands on things, there wasn’t much of a spell to be cast here.