Last summer, while the surprise summer hit "The Blair Witch Project" was on its way to collect $250 million US in the global box office, a lucrative deal was signed by directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick with Artisan Entertainment. In exchange for millions of dollars, the two budding film directors would fashion a sequel and a prequel to their low-budget horror film. Now, one year later, the second film in the 'Blair Witch trilogy', "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2", has arrived. Unfortunately, despite a bigger budget ($10 million dollars vs. $30,000 for the original) and higher production values (no more herky-jerky cinematography), "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" contains none of the earnestness, intrigue, or creativity that made "The Blair Witch Project" so compelling.
The film actually shows some promise for at least the first five minutes. An opening caption declares that the film is a 'fictional re-enactment of events that occurred after "The Blair Witch Project" was released'. Taking cues from media circus generated in the wake of "The Blair Witch Project", "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" opens up with a montage featuring media coverage on the first film (including a clip of movie critic Roger Ebert), as well as 'news footage' showing how the real town of Burkittsville, MD had been inundated by tourists. A wonderfully comic scene has the local sheriff ordering curiosity-seekers to "Get out of the woods! Go home! There is no goddamn Blair Witch!", while another has a local resident complaining how expensive it is to mail rocks to 'Blair Witch' enthusiasts. Unfortunately, after this short prologue, the film quickly throws all its ingenuity out the window and settles into the mindless trappings of the 'teen horror' genre.
This time around, there are five people headed into the woods. Jeffrey (Jeffrey Donovan, seen recently in "Bait") is a huckster cashing in on the whole 'Blair Witch' hysteria-- in addition to selling 'Blair Witch' merchandise from his web site, he has launched 'The Blair Witch Hunt', a tour of the landmarks made famous by the film. Along for the ride on his inaugural tour are Stephen (Stephen Turner) and his girlfriend Tristen (Tristine Skyler), who are doing research for a book tackling the veracity of 'Blair Witch'. They are joined by Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a real-life witch (wicca) who wants to prove that the 'Blair Witch' is not as evil as everyone thinks, and Kim (Kim Director of "Summer of Sam"), a goth girl who not only claims to possess psychic powers, but is willing to admit that she actually enjoyed the movie.
Armed with cameras, equipment, and provisions, they set out into the woods near Burkittsville to 'investigate' the areas visited by the three missing filmmakers. Not surprisingly, strange things begin to happen, including a mysterious three-hour long block of time in which they have no recollection of what happened. Despite their campsite and equipment being trashed by an unknown entity, the five 'witch hunters' are able to emerge from the woods with their video tape footage intact. Unfortunately, they have also inadvertently brought something back with them...
Despite its shoddy production values and lack of any 'special effects', "The Blair Witch Project" was an ingenious piece of cinema-verité film-making that didn't scrimp on the elements of story, character, and conflict. Suspense was created by its use of first-person perspective, improvised acting, and the volatile dynamics between its three likable leads. The execution was so simple and compelling that it made a number of people ask if the events portrayed in the film actually happened. How could Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick possibly top this?
In the case of "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2", they brought in acclaimed documentary and television director Joe Berlinger ("Paradise Lost: The Child Murders and Robin Hood Hills") and gave him $10 million dollars to work with. Working with screenwriter Dick Beebe ("House on Haunted Hill"), Berlinger decided to mix fiction and fact to explore the impact of the 'Blair Witch' craze on a group of well-intentioned enthusiasts who don't accept that it was 'only a movie'. As he did in his documentaries "Brothers Keeper" and "Paradise Lost", there's a thematic undercurrent about the media's role in inciting violence and distorting the public's perceptions to a tragic event.
Unfortunately, despite Berlinger's best intentions, the sequel ends up being just another mediocre teen horror film, the type where the uninteresting yet well-scrubbed characters wait around to be killed off one-by-one. None of the one-note characters, despite their Hollywood-groomed looks, are interesting, nor do they have anything interesting to say, even when they start pointing fingers at one another. In addition, instead of being the product of genuine tension, the film's cliché-ridden scares are provided by a series of clumsily conceived 'dream sequences' that are concerned more about special effects than storytelling. Finally, seemingly for lack of any better ideas for injecting some excitement into the story, Berlinger throws in enough gratuitous sex, nudity, ketchup, and squishy noises to earn the film an R-rating.
However, what is most disappointing about "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" is that it does nothing to advance the mythology of the 'Blair Witch', other than elaborate a few details on events that were already established in the first film. Even the title of the sequel is a complete mystery, since the script makes absolutely no reference to a 'book of shadows'. The script also does not elaborate on the outcome of Heather, Josh, or Mike, the missing filmmakers from the first film, despite the open-ended resolution of the first film, and the rich dramatic opportunities afforded by it.
For example, "The Last Broadcast", another supernaturally-themed mockumentary that actually preceded "The Blair Witch Project" (some argue that it also inspired it), focused on reviewing the evidence that led to the murder conviction of the lone survivor of another ill-fated excursion into the woods, only in New Jersey. What if Josh had been found alive, and then put on trial for the murders of Heather and Mike (hmmm... could make for an interesting episode of "The Practice")? Or the remains of the three filmmakers had been found, leading to a new forensic interpretation of their final hours (hmmmm... could make for an interesting episode of "The X-Files" or "Homicide: Life on the Street")? Or what if the movie was actually about a Hollywood studio film crew in the same woods making a movie based on Heather's footage that inadvertently uncovers the truth about the 'Blair Witch'? Alas, instead of something daring or different, fans of the first film must settle for a rather conventional cross between "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street".
If you thought it was safe to go back into the woods... think again. With a miniscule budget of $10 million and a built-in audience, there is little doubt that "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" will make its money back within its first few weeks. Unfortunately, the promise and ingenuity of "The Blair Witch Project" have been replaced by the rote type of horror film-making that has become so commonplace. Based on the film's first five minutes, director Joe Berlinger probably would have probably been better off making a straightforward documentary on the whole 'Blair Witch' phenomenon, instead of trying to make a 'scary movie'.