Blair Witch Project 2, The: Book of Shadows (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It was as ill-advised as it was inevitable: a sequel to 1999's most unexpected hit, The Blair Witch Project. These days, however, creativity rarely enters the question when huge amounts of money are involved, and The Blair Witch Project brought Artisan Entertainment such a landslide return on their investment that both a sequel and a prequel were announced before the dust had settled. Never mind that The Blair Witch Project was obviously designed as a one-off project and that subsequent installments would not only suffer in comparison with the first, but would come across as awkward, ungainly grafts onto a story that could only be hurt by a single additional frame.

For Blair Witch creators Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, greed is clearly a stronger motivator than artistic integrity. Faced with a multi-million dollar deal from Artistan, they caved in, although their participation in Book of Shadows only went so far as turning the property over to director Joe Berlinger and allowing their names to be attached as executive producers. This way, they can claim minimal responsibility while still collecting a healthy paycheck. In a sense, one can hardly blame Sanchez and Myrick for taking advantage of fortune's unexpected boon. In their position, I might do the same thing. Sadly, the ones who pay for this are those going to see Book of Shadows hoping to see a good movie.

Some kind of letdown or disappointment was inevitable with Book of Shadows; no matter how innovative and intriguing it was, it wasn't going to live up to fans' expectations. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem to have chosen the worst possible scenario and implemented it using the dumbest script and the least appealing group of young actors. Where The Blair Witch Project was creepy, tense, and hypnotically compelling, Book of Shadows is little more than a sub-par slasher film with the moniker "Blair Witch" attached. In other words, it's lifeless, tedious, and (even at 90 minutes) overlong. It's hard to recall a sequel that fell this short of the mark set by its immediate predecessor. Even Halloween II didn't leave this kind of ugly impression.

Book of Shadows starts out with a promising sequence illustrating how post-Blair Witch Project mania has affected the town of Burkettsville, Maryland, where the film was set. (The opening caption states: "The following is a fictional re-enactment of events that occurred after The Blair Witch Project was released.") It's a merchandising feeding frenzy, with residents making profits on everything from stick figures to rocks from their back yards. Some townsfolk resent the influx of tourists, including the local sheriff (who, in the film's lone amusing scene, can be seen yelling at people, "Get out of the woods! There is no damn Blair Witch!"). However, after about five minutes of mockumentary footage, we move into the main story, and that's where things fall apart... fast.

Jeffrey Donovan is an entrepreneur who has decided to capitalize upon the Blair Witch phenomenon by operating "The Blair Witch Hunt", a walking tour of the woods around Burkettsville. Four clients have joined him for his inaugural trek: Stephen Turner and Tristen Skylar, a couple who are writing a book about the Blair Witch; Erica Leerhsen, a wiccan who thinks the Blair Witch is a good witch; and Kim Director, a psychic goth who thought the movie was cool. Of course, once these five get into the woods, strange things happen, and, upon their return to the more civilized world, they realize they may have brought something back with them.

Without a doubt, one of the things that made The Blair Witch Project successful was its first-person, you-are-there approach to telling the tale. Using an almost "Dogma 95" approach to storytelling, Sanchez and Myrick sent their actors into the woods and let them film things themselves, employing hand-held camera shots and improvisational acting. For Book of Shadows, Berlinger, whose background is in documentaries, throws all this out of the window, opting instead for more traditional filmmaking methods. Hand-held video shots are kept to a minimum and Berlinger was given enough money to hire a helicopter to get some flyover shots of the woods. In addition, the eerie silence of The Blair Witch Project's soundtrack has been replaced by a succession of heavy metal songs which, at best, can be described as distracting. Many viewers claimed to have been frightened by The Blair Witch Project; Book of Shadows isn't going to scare anyone except the bean counters at Artisan who are counting on a big financial return.

Putting stylistic issues aside, there's the plot to consider - although there isn't much there. Book of Shadows doesn't really advance the Blair Witch legend, and it certainly doesn't explore the mystery behind the disappearance of three principals from the first film (of course, since they were just actors in a film, no one is really missing). The ultimate purpose of Book of Shadows is to confuse fact and fiction surrounding the Blair Witch, but that's not an original or even interesting concept. The screenplay chosen to investigate this idea is as dumb as it is boring. Nothing much happens - a group of people sit around engaging in inane dialogue until one of them goes out to buy beer or another has a vision of a dead person. Book of Shadows could have been any '80s low-budget slasher film - it's about as badly scripted and inadequately crafted. The bits and pieces of Blair Witch lore thrown in represent little more than red herrings to lure Blair Witch Project fans into theaters.

One key element that Berlinger has ignored in putting together this movie is that viewers of the first film developed a strong identification with the three protagonists. Their complete absence from Book of Shadows leaves a gaping void that the five new characters - all of whom are obvious types - are incapable of filling. A downshift in the quality of acting also has something to do with this. We liked and believed in Heather, Josh, and Mike (that's why so many people were duped into believing that the events in The Blair Witch Project were real); we couldn't care less about Jeffrey, Stephen, Kim, Erica, and Tristen. (In fact, without a cast list in front of me, I'm not sure I would have remembered all of their names.)

The Blair Witch Project was a horror film without gore, sex, or nudity (it earned its R-rating strictly on the basis of frequent profanity). Book of Shadows takes the series back into the realm of formula by employing all three. The banality of this project is a disappointment all around, and those who will feel the keenest sense of loss are those who heaped praise upon The Blair Witch Project and lined up for hours to see it a third, forth, or fortieth time. (Blair Witch Project detractors won't be any kinder to Book of Shadows, but their condemnation is expected.) For those people, Book of Shadows is almost a betrayal. For everyone else, it's just a bad movie that should be given as wide a berth as the woods around Burkettsville.

Blair Witch Project 2, The: Book of Shadows (United States, 2000)

Director: Joe Berlinger
Cast: Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristen Skylar, Stephen Barker Turner
Screenplay: Dick Beebe, Joe Berlinger
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Artisan Entertainment
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2000-10-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1