14 months after “The Blair Witch Project”, distributor Artisan has pumped out a sequel largely completed without the involvement of any of the original participants. Bad buzz had bounced around the internet about this flick for a couple of weeks. Is it actually any good?
I’m sure the producers felt inspired by the choice of Joe Berlinger, who made the non-fiction films “Brother’s Keeper”, “Paradise Lost”, and “Paradise Lost 2”. I’m sure Artisan looked at those movies and saw the same documentary feel with a bunch of people running around the woods. Berlinger soon chucked any of the less inspired ideas that had been tossed around for the new film in favor of something more ambitious.
“Book of Shadows” begins with not so much a recap of the events of the original, but an overview of the hysteria caused by a film called “The Blair Witch Project”. It acknowledges the original as a work of fiction (a la “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”) as evening news shows report about the fans overrunning the real-life small town of Burkittsville, Maryland.
In this opening footage we meet Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), a local boy with a mysterious past out to capitalize on the popularity of the film. Through his website, he sells large numbers of T-shirts and other memorabilia, and now he has launched his first ever tour/camping trip of the physical sites used in the movie. His customers for this journey include Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and Tristen (Tristen Skylar), graduate students and lovers writing a book called “The Blair Witch: Hysteria or History?” Also along for the ride is Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a practicing witch, or wiccan, out to clear the name of the supposed Blair Witch, Elly Kedward. The final member of the party is goth chick Kim (Kim Director). She’s just looking for some fun.
On the first night of the tour, the group sets up camp near the foundation of the house of child killer Rustin Parr. This is where the house of the first film’s final events once stood. Jeff sets up a large amount of video equipment to record the night.
Intending to party all night, all five awake in the morning with all of the equipment destroyed and no memory of what had happened during the previous five hours. Worse, they discover the videotapes of the evening hidden in the same place that the supposedly lost footage of the original “Blair Witch Project” was found. Everyone decides to head back to Jeff’s place, an old factory with only one entrance across a rickety foot bridge. Using the sophisticated editing equipment there to view the tapes, they soon realize that something very wrong has happened, and it’s not over yet.
Hey, sequels aren’t easy. Berlinger knew a straight redux of the found footage gimmick of the first film wouldn’t have worked, so he didn’t even try. He then looked at what were the key elements of the original and what he might be able to do with them. One detail he carried through was the cast of total unknowns acting under their real names. Another detail is the significance of the website to the enjoyment of the experience. This time out, you really need to go the official site for much of characters’ histories and for any mention or description of what a “Book of Shadows” actually is. The best idea Berlinger had was to take the idea of the audience using the “lost” footage to discover what had happened to the campers, and this time have the campers try to find what had happened to themselves.
Unfortunately, like the original, “Book of Shadows” sounds a lot cooler in theory than in the execution. The acting is a little uneven to downright terrible from some of the supporting characters. While this movie is actually shot on film, the cleaner look seems to mute the impact. The plot itself is occasionally murky due to frequent jumps in time in the action. The payoff at the end doesn’t entire satisfy, either.
A bigger problem is what I like to call the Next Generation factor. Whatever the faults of the original “Star Trek” series, you got the sense that Kirk was a pretty good captain (and bullshit artist) who maybe didn’t have the best ship or the best crew in the fleet, but the whole package worked very well together. One of the (several) problems with “Star Trek: Next Generation” is that the captain had the best ship, with the only android, the only Klingon, the only boy genius, and the only blind engineer with a banana clip on his face in all of Starfleet. Something about having a bunch of unique freaks instead of a group of normal dorks like the audience detracts from the whole enterprise. This is another problem with “Book of Shadows”. We find that one character just got out of an insane asylum, one is supposed to be psychic, one’s a witch, and another is struggling with an unplanned pregnancy. Everyone so conveniently has their “dark secret”, they could have called this the “Agatha Christie Project”. I half expected Hercule Poirot to walk out at the end and explain to the characters what the hell happened.
Though it’s a good attempt, “Book of Shadows” is a kind of noble failure. It was going in the right direction, and if Berlinger and co-screenwriter Dick Beebe hadn’t been so rushed, they probably could have more clearly explored their ideas of conflict between memory and video. I don’t know if anyone else could have done that much better. Original directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez probably knew they were dodging a bullet by giving up the sequel, though they have apparently agreed to come back for a third installment. “Book of Shadows” is already profitable due to foreign pre-sales. Maybe by the time “BW3” has to be made its creators will have figured out what it should be.

[ Read the “Blair Witch 2”-related feature, ] THE TROUBLE WITH SEQUELS [ by Ron Wells. ]

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