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The pitchforks and burning torches sure were out in full force when Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was rush-released into cinemas just in time for Halloween 2000. "A little indie masterpiece has been falsified and trashed in this spectacularly bad sequel," read one of the more favorable reviews. The Razzies, always primed to hit the most obvious targets, nominated "any two actors" from the film for Worst Screen Couple. Even its director later tried to distance himself from a follow-up that no one really asked for.
Book of Shadows was always going to struggle to connect as viscerally as the original. The Blair Witch Project had tapped into the dot com boom like no other movie before, establishing mythology with an official website that ingeniously blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Its shaky-cam found footage technique, then a relatively new concept, only added to the confusion, leaving some viewers stumbling out of early screenings in the belief they'd just witnessed a real-life snuff film. Not since The Exorcist 26 years earlier had a horror movie traumatized so many cinemagoers.
With audiences inevitably far more web-savvy nearly 18 months on, director Joe Berlinger couldn't rely on the same shock tactics — a tie-in dossier compiled of faux-police reports was fooling no-one this time around. The Blair Witch's second big-screen outing would have to be a different kind of beast. Unfortunately, some obtrusive studio execs took things too far the other way.
Berlinger had intended for his dramatic directorial debut to pose the type of thought-provoking questions associated with his acclaimed non-fiction work. Why does the public so freely accept the authenticity of everything captured on video? What are the dangers of fanaticism driven by Hollywood and 24-hour news channels? A motley crew of Blair Witch-obsessed dark tourists led by a pre-Burn Notice Jeffrey Donovan were supposed to provide the answers.
With the likes of My Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills — two ground-breaking documentaries credited with pioneering the structure and aesthetics of today's true crime renaissance — Berlinger had proved he could tackle such weighty themes. Yet his attempts to shine the light on the media's glorification of violence are entirely undermined here by, well, gratuitous displays of violence.
Barely a scene goes by without a flashback to some poor camper being bludgeoned to death or a disturbing blood-soaked hallucination. The Blair Witch Project showed that what you don't see can be far more terrifying than what you do. In its sequel, absolutely nothing is left to the imagination.
That's not entirely Berlinger's fault, to be fair. As with the mouth-foaming asylum shots, the gang's ritualistic slaughter was a last-minute addition, filmed just weeks before the premiere due to outside interference. Indeed, having completely ignored original production company Haxan Films' plans to let the Blair Witch hype die down before revisiting Burkittsville, Artisan Entertainment couldn't stop meddling with the creative process, either.
Essentially killing any suspense about the fate of several key characters, the studio also demanded the closing interrogation room scene to be spliced and interspersed throughout the film's 90-minute run. And nothing dates a turn-of-the-century horror more than a blast of alternative metal in the opening credits. Here, Frank Sinatra's more timeless big band classic "Witchcraft" was bumped late in the day for Marilyn Manson's on-the-nose "Disposable Teens."
Berlinger and co-writer Dick Beebe, however, have to take some of the blame for Book of Shadows' shortcomings, particularly its wafer-thin characters. Channeling his inner Matthew Lillard, Donovan's tour guide Jeffrey (most of the actors kept their first names) is an archetypal slacker incapable of uttering a sentence without the word "man." And we first meet Kim Director's goth girl where else, but sleeping on a tombstone. Throw in some pretentious dialog about the differences between myth and truth and some baffling narrative choices (wouldn’t someone who's suffered a miscarriage mid-tour simply go home?) and it's clear that Berlinger was never really on to a winner.
Before Book of Shadows descends into generic horror territory, however, there are some genuine flashes of inspiration. In a rare concession to the original's grainy, faux-documentary style, the opening vox pops — in which real-life Burkittsville residents reflect on The Blair Witch Project's impact— teases a sense of meta-humor that sadly soon falls away: There's a great quote, delivered completely deadpan, about the pitfalls of shipping souvenir rocks.
Horror aficionados may also appreciate the classic references sprinkled throughout, from the barking dogs of The Omen and tree-swinging of Evil Dead II to the disturbing asylum procedure lifted from once-banned documentary Titicut Follies.
And while swiftly moving the action from the woods into a dilapidated factory robs the franchise of its USP, it does allow us a fun peek into the cottage industry it's spawned: replica creepy stick figures, anyone? Had it leaned more into this Scream-esque approach, then perhaps Book of Shadows would have been welcomed more fondly. Despite numerous jump scares and nightmarish visions, it's never particularly frightening but it's not without wit.
Nor is it short of ambiguity. "Video never lies. Film does," Jeffrey claims while justifying his love of handheld cameras. And we eventually see that recordings of the group's fateful camping trip apparently contradicts everything we were led to believe. There isn't a tree amidst the ruins of the Rustin Parr house. The group didn't all spend the night blacked out: they had a ceremonial orgy. Or did they? Perhaps it's the tape distorting reality?
It's the same with the footage that appears to condemn the final three as murderers, rather than merely conduits for an evil spirit. Did their obsession with the movie compel them to commit such heinous acts? Or did their time in the woods inspire some kind of collective delusions? To his credit, Berlinger doesn't give us an easy answer. If only he didn't feel the need to spell everything out in block capitals elsewhere.
Ultimately, Book of Shadows doesn't quite deserve its reputation as an unmitigated disaster. But it’s clearly a film where the director and the studio both wanted different things, and as a result, it ends up as neither.