Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
Screenplay : Dick Beebe and Joe Berlinger
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Kim Director (Kim Director), Jeffrey Donovan (Jeffrey Donovan), Erica Leerhsen (Erica Leerhsen), Tristine Skyler (Tristen Skylar), Stephen Barker Turner (Stephen Turner), Lanny Flaherty (Sheriff)
A common problem with movie sequels is that they tell stories that don't need to be told. Most sequels are not conceived at the same time as the original, thus they latch on and try to take advantage of momentum they didn't generate. Such is the case of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the quick follow-up to last year's phenomenally successful pseudo-documentary horror flick The Blair Witch Project.
The problem with Book of Shadows is that the story it tells is completely unnecessary. It in no way advances or expands our knowledge of the ambiguous goings-on in the first film or even points in a new direction. Instead, it tells a redundant, often infuriatingly vague story set a few months after the theatrical release of the first film (Book of Shadows tries to ride on in-joke references and intertextuality, but it all feels too forced).
First-time feature director Joe Berlinger, best known as the co-director, along with Bruce Sinofsky, of several critically acclaimed documentaries, including Brother's Keeper (1992) and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), joins the camp of recent directors who are under the misguided belief that music video aesthetics somehow work for horror films. Rather than taking time to build atmosphere and chills, Berlinger rushes in with a sledge-hammer mentality reminiscent of too many other directors of late, such as Jan De Bont (1998's The Haunting), Rupert Wainwright (1999's Stigmata), and William Malone (1999's The House on Haunted Hill). All of them share in common a complete lack of patience, no sense of pacing, and a rampant desire to induce sensory overload.
To be fair, it may be that Berlinger was simply trying to distance himself from the unique style of The Blair Witch Project, whose directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, served as executive producers for the sequel. Myrick and Sanchez's film worked because of the medium: shot on digital video, The Blair Witch Project became a phenomenon because many people were duped into believing it was real. And why not? With Cops, America's Funniest Home Videos, and so on, we have come to believe that anything shot on video must be real. The medium itself denotes, in many people's minds, the truth. Hence, the shock felt around the country when the police officers who beat Rodney King were let off. How could they be found innocent? The proof was right there on the video.
Unfortunately for Berlinger, Myrick and Sanchez's film was a one-trick pony, essentially lightning in a bottle that can't be captured twice. Their film was undeniably effective, but its very effectiveness was based on utter and complete uniqueness. No one else could come along and try the same thing because the effect is reliant on an unexpecting audience.
Berlinger, along with co-writer Dick Beebe (The House on Haunted Hill), give it their best shot, though. While Berlinger films Book of Shadows like a conventional movie, he fills the screen with video cameras of all shapes and sizes, from large camera on tripods, to hand-held digital cameras, to surveillance cameras bolted to walls. The idea is that everything that happens in the movie is being filmed from every conceivable angle, and the big surprise at the end of the film (which is really no surprise at all) is when "the truth" of what has really happened in the narrative is played out on video. As a kind of affectionate nod to the trick played by the first film, in Book of Shadows, the truth is on the videotape.
The story involves a group of people who, after seeing The Blair Witch Project, decide to see the woods for themselves. Led by local Burkittsville, Maryland, resident Jeff Donvan (in another nod to the original, all the main characters have the same name as the actors who portray them), the group includes a straight-arrow couple (Tristine Skyler and Stephen Turner), a Goth psychic who wears too much eye make-up (Kim Director), and a Wiccan witch (Erica Leerhsen). For those unfamiliar with Wiccan, it is also known as "white witchcraft" and, contrary to rumors about drinking blood and sacrificing children, it simply emphasizes oneness with nature.
The group travels out the Black Woods where the characters in The Blair Witch Project supposedly disappeared. That night, something strange happens, and they can't remember what happened during a particular five-hour stretch. The rest of the film chronicles their attempts to piece together the video footage of that night and find out what really happened. This becomes all the more urgent when they find out that five other Blair Witch seekers were murdered in ritualistic fashion that same night, and the irritatingly hotheaded local sheriff (Lanny Flaherty) is trying to pin it on them.
The story is not much more complicated than that simple description, but Berlinger tries to punch up the intensity level by telling it in fragmented, nonlinear form, cutting back and forth between past, present, and future, giving tantalizing glimpses of what will happen later on down the road. He is also keen on the rapid-fire editing that is characteristic of music videos, splashing all kinds of imagery across the screen. Much of it is graphic gore: people being gutted, throats being slit, hands being tied with rope, and so on. While the original film was remarkably scary precisely because it left so much to the imagination, Berlinger takes the exact opposite approach and puts as much as he can on-screen, even if it's in quick, often repetitive flashes.
Because the story relies heavily on visions, dreams, and hallucinations, Berlinger feels he has carte blanche to do whatever he wants cinematically. While he does create some visually arresting imagery and even manages to give the audience a small jolt once or twice, the end product feels sloppy and malformed, with too many plotlines left unexplained (What's the deal with the tree? What's the point of Jeff's having been confined to a mental hospital? What, after all, is "The Book of Shadows," since it's never referenced in the movie?). Overall, Book of Shadows comes across exactly as it is: a movie that was quickly thrown together to cash in on a huge box office hit. Go figure.
©2000 James Kendrick