Written by: Dick Bebee and Joe Berlinger (screenplay), Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick (characters)
Directed by: Joe Berlinger
Starring: Jeffrey Donovan, Stephen Barker Turner, and Erica Leerhsen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
" We brought something back with us."
When The Blair Witch Project proved to be a runaway, meteoric success in the summer of 1999, the inevitable sequel announcement was hardly surprising. What was surprising, however, was the route taken by Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a film that certainly seems like it should be a typical cash-in since it arrived in theaters just 15 months after the original. Since this genre often thrives on formula, it would not have been surprising to see a Blair Witch sequel simply attempt to recreate the style and tone of the original in order to keep this franchise train rolling.
Instead, Book of Shadows seemed intent to derail it before it could ever leave the station with a confounding approach that took The Blair Witch Project from the penthouse to the outhouse within the space of a year. In the absence of a Blair Witch franchise (or, hell, even any kind of a cultural footprint) 15 years later, it’s a turn of events that feels so daring and amazing that you can’t help but appreciate Book of Shadows on some level. If you’re going to blow up something, you might as well pour gasoline onto a pile of turn-of-the-century nu-metal , Hot Topic Goth chic, and Kurt Loder-helmed MTV News reports before setting off a glorious blaze.
Book of Shadows does exactly that and does so almost immediately. Presented as a “re-enactment” of actual events (as opposed to the supposed “authentic” footage of the original) surrounding the release of The Blair Witch Project, the sequel goes meta and treats the original as simply a hit movie that has caused obsessives to flock to Burkittsville, Maryland in the hopes of further exploring the legend. Locals bristle at these touristy hordes, who head off into the woods hoping for a supernatural encounter. However, some—like Jeffrey Patterson (Jeffrey Donovan) –are more enterprising; a local raconteur of sorts, Patterson has started a tour guide service to take willing tourists to the infamous sites of Blair Witch lore.
His inaugural voyage features of quartet of curious minds from all walks of life, including a wiccan (Erica Leerhsen), a goth psychic (Kim Director), and a husband and wife team writing a book on the hysteria surrounding The Blair Witch Project (Stephen Barker Turner & Tristine Skyler). To say that their retreat into the sinister Black Hills goes wrong is an understatement: after waking up from a druggy haze, no one can remember what happened the previous night, leaving everyone scrambling for scraps of memory as their minds unravel. Hallucinations abound as the group attempts to reconcile a rash of grisly slayings with their own recollection of the previous night’s events: have they somehow become victims of Jeffrey’s own machinations (it comes as no surprise that he doesn’t exactly advertise his stint in a mental ward), or is the Blair Witch herself haunting the proceedings?
Considering the ill-fated reception of Book of Shadows, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the film doesn’t seem all that concerned with what role the Blair Witch plays here (this despite being titled “Blair Witch 2”). Scraps of the mythology are whispered around the campfire, including the macabre tales surrounding Rustin Parr, but they hardly seem to function as anything beyond the impetus to get another group of unsuspecting victims into the woods. Outside of a picture and a mention of the witch’s real name, the mythology mostly serves to lightly shade the proceedings, some of which actually unfold in the ruins of the old Parr house. While it’s initially enough to recapture the spooky, backwoods atmosphere of the original, it hardly functions beyond that, which is simultaneously frustrating and admirable. On the one hand, it seems so obvious that just about everyone involved (especially Artisan Entertainment) jumped headlong into a Blair Witch sequel without ever cracking (or even thinking about) what that would mean.
But, on the other, how many franchise sequels ignite their own diminishing returns by pulling the curtain back on its own monster? Book of Shadows practically refuses to even tug at the curtain, which is sort of refreshing in some respects. The film walks a fine line between wanting to wallow in the Blair Witch mythology while acknowledging that it was all fabricated for a movie (this, of course, makes the characters’ obsession with it sort of silly). In many ways, it’s an antidote to this era’s cheeky, meta brand of horror: where many films with this approach looked to poke fun at genre conventions with an above-it-all attitude, this one is out to cut down its smart-ass protagonists. At one point, the characters mock Heather Donahue’s famous bit from the original, only to soon find themselves wrapped up in their own hysteria.
Hysteria is at the center of Book of Shadows, or at least somewhere approaching whatever center the film has. Director Joe Berlinger has maintained that his film originally set out to explore the effects of mass hysteria, the kernel of which is evident throughout the final product (however faintly). By turning its attention to the hysteria surrounding The Blair Witch Project itself, the film immediately starts a thread examining the relationship between media and reality; at some point, it becomes intertwined more explicitly with media and violence, as the group’s violent, mass psychosis folds into the original film’s legacy (no matter how absurd that might sound). Fifteen years tends to cause one to forget just how relevant this would have been at the time; already a long-debated topic in the 90s, it was reignited in the wake of the Columbine tragedy a year earlier. Book of Shadows presents a ridiculously literalized take on the argument that horror fanatics can be driven to violence by their obsessions, as its band of obsessives are demonized at every turn for violence they may or may not have committed.
The problem, of course, is that Berlinger (perhaps through no fault of his own thanks to Artisan’s meddling) often loses this thread and watches it fumble away as Book of Shadows spirals into its own bizarre brand of lunacy. Both Berlinger and Artisan are responsible for the sharp detour from the original film, which is pronounced in nearly every element. Gone is the faux verite, found footage style, here replaced by a traditionally shot, frenetically edited film that still manages to fall somewhere between the era’s overly-slick studio project and the original’s rawness. The naturalistic performances that made the original so convincing are a distant memory, as everyone here has decided that “over the top” still isn’t high enough. Some of the turns are so stilted and overcooked that I’m convinced Book of Shadows wants to make you aware of its artifice at all times. There’s trying to distance yourself from a predecessor, and then there’s this, an attempt that practically sprints away from everything that made the original work.
All of this sounds like a surefire recipe for disaster, but here’s the thing: nobody ever said disasters can’t be incredible to watch. Despite so much working against it, Book of Shadows actually is compelling in the same way its predecessor is: somehow, it takes these lumps of bad decisions and chisels an unrelentingly sinister sense of atmosphere from it. It’s appropriate that the closing credits play over footage that slowly turns upside down, as the entire film feels off-kilter from the start. Coherency does not seem to be a priority, as Book of Shadows employs a series of flash-forwards and flashbacks to stitch together its story, meaning our grasp on reality is tenuous at best, much like the characters. Whereas the original film did not rely on explicit violence, Blair Witch 2 features unnerving bursts of the otherwise unseen slaughter at its center. Similarly, the searing sequences involving Jeffrey’s sanitarium stay are a disturbing harbinger for the film’s merciless commitment to assaulting its audience with deranged imagery.
Even if Book of Shadows never truly coheres (on account of it not giving much of a fuck about doing so), it’s a entrancing collection of sights and sounds. Heralded by Marilyn Manson’s “Disposable Teens” (which doubles as something as a mission statement), it burrows into a bewitching, almost otherworldly groove. Burkittsville becomes Twin Peaks by way of a twisted rendition of Mayberry, as local residents seem to be frozen in the grips of its town’s new legacy. Even the town sheriff (Lanny Flaherty) feels about two steps removed from the brink of madness himself. At all times, Book of Shadows feels like it’s a movie about inmates running an asylum, only it also feels like the same inmates are running the show itself—but only after taking studio-mandated notes from focus groups who are convinced audiences are dying to see stereotypical portrayals of wiccans and goth girls straight out of The Craft while also having their brain pummeled by System of a Down and Nickelback. In retrospect, a film probably couldn’t try any harder to be a turn-of-the-millennium time capsule, which only adds to its charm.
I don’t know if I would still proclaim Book of Shadows to be as good as the original (something I honestly uttered after watching it in theaters), but, in a better world, more would have recognized it for its ballsy attempts to act as more of an experimental B-side to The Blair Witch Project rather than a traditional sequel. Sure, maybe it looks an awful lot like a studio’s misguided attempt to remake the original in its own image, but that image is undeniably mesmerizing in its own kooky way because it’s constantly splitting the difference between Berlinger and Artisan’s warring visions. We’re (perhaps appropriately) left with a schizophrenic dispatch that should not have been the last we heard from this absorbing mythology. In that better world, people still cling to their prized Blair Witch memorabilia advertised in the merchandise catalogue tucked inside the DVD release, which touts everything from the iconic (or not?) stickman totems to baseball hats.
Clearly, Artisan had high hopes with this franchise, but while one hand was hocking merchandise, the other was unwittingly lighting the fuse on its destruction with Book of Shadows. History suggests that it will eventually rise from the ashes with a reboot, but, chances are, it won’t feel nearly as unhinged and bold as this attempt at making audiences confront both The Blair Witch Project and the curse of franchise filmmaking. These days, it's hard to imagine a sequel that essentially surrenders in the face of that difficulty before veering off on such a wild and indelible tangent.
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