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BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kim Director, Jeff Donavan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristen Skylar, Stephen Barker Turner
Director:  Joe Berlinger
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  March 13, 2001

Film **

The Blair Witch Project was a horror movie that worked because it defied all horror movie clichés.  Book of Shadows is a sequel that fails because it embraces them.

Perhaps the point of the second film was to avoid becoming a stale carbon copy of the first one:  the pseudo-documentary style that inspired a nation to motion sickness and bad dreams was so fresh and innovative that it really couldn’t have been duplicated.  The problem is, by taking a polarized approach, the sequel becomes just another bland, by-the-numbers horror film…and not a very scary one, at that.

Part of the problem may have been the conflict of ideas between the director and the studio.  Joe Berlinger, making his fictional feature film debut here after co-directing the absorbing and haunting Paradise Lost documentaries, claims in the commentary track that he had created a movie with no gore, and one that proceeded on the assumption that the first film wasn’t real.  His concept was to create a scenario where human involvement might have taken the place of the supernatural in a series of evil happenings.  He claims the studio wanted something different, so he went back and peppered the film with pointless violence and senseless intercut footage that serve only as cheap intermittent shocks.  It’s no wonder the movie often feels like it’s proceeding with no sense of direction or purpose.

As the movie opens, we’re looking on the now-famous town of Burkittsville, Maryland, and shows an accurate depiction of what happened to a sleepy little town after The Blair Witch Project became such a phenomenon.  Tourists descend upon the little burg with their video cameras, walking the Blair Witch trails, buying up little rocks and stick figures, and generally making life uncomfortable for the residents.

A special tour, headed by Jeff (Donovan—as a possible homage to the first film, the actors all keep their real names here) is heading off into the woods for a look at the house where Heather, Josh and Michael may have met their fates…the old home of convicted child killer Rustin Parr, who was hanged for his crimes in the 1940’s and always claimed a mysterious old woman made him do it.  The house is nothing but a foundation now, but our intrepid group decides to camp there for the night, complete with video cameras for everybody.  Are there scares forthcoming?  Well…let me put it this way:  I knew I was in trouble when the first attempt at one was, “Hey, where did this tree come from?”

The group smokes lots of pot and downs many beers over the course of the night.  Naturally, they wonder why they can’t remember anything the next morning when they wake up.  Nevertheless, all their equipment is smashed, and all that’s left are their videotapes, which somehow got stored in the same spot where Heather’s original footage was supposedly found.  Ooh.

They retreat to Jeff’s home, an old abandoned factory with—get this—a moat, where Jeff attempts to analyze the footage.  Meanwhile, strange marks begin appearing on their bodies, and one character, a confessed Wiccan, begins to cry, “we’ve brought something back with us!”

What follows is mostly a shameful series of manipulations.  Horrible events take place that turn out to be dreams as the characters snap out of them.  There are sudden loud noises and music cues at every angle.  Things jump out of nowhere for shock value that are usually benign.  This is the problem with the sequel in a nutshell:  Blair Witch knew how to scare.  Book of Shadows only knows how to startle.

The ending is such a lame, pitiful excuse at being clever that it only leaves the audience with a final bad taste.  It’s not smart, nor meaningful, nor frightening.  To watch it is to see filmmakers who were strapped for better ideas.

Loving the first film as much as I did (making it a personal top ten pick for 1999), I went to see Book of Shadows on opening day.  I walked away detesting it, not with the normal disdain for a merely bad film, but with the hatred of catching a vandal in the act of destroying something precious.  Had it ONLY been another assembly line horror film, I could have excused and/or dismissed it, but this drivel was a bastard child daring to wear the Blair Witch coat of arms. 

Watching it a second time, I readily confess I didn’t feel the same bitterness nor anger towards it.  This time, I viewed it with less biased eyes, and though I still walked away unimpressed, at least this time I walked away with indifference. 

I can say now, judging Book of Shadows apart from the spell of its much better predecessor, that I would have liked even one genuine scare.  I would have liked something to think about afterwards.  I would have liked a mystery that had evolved from imagination rather than manipulation.  I would have liked a better cast.  I would have liked Joe Berlinger to present even one-tenth of the disturbing sense that permeated Paradise Lost.  But he is a documentary filmmaker.  That means if such a thing didn’t exist to begin with, he couldn’t create it:  he could only capture the nothingness that was there.

Video ***

As with the first movie, Book of Shadows contains multiple media, though it does have the benefit of being largely shot with standard 35 mm film.  There is some video footage, as shot by the cast and other surveillance cameras, to give it some of the feel of the original, as well as helping to mix up the textures a little bit.  For the most part, this is a terrific looking transfer…no flaws other than what the standard limitations of video and such present.  This is a mostly dark film, with deliberately muted colors, so by nature, it’s not a reference quality disc, but said dark scenes render quite nicely, with clear imaging, no grain, and no compression evident. 

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is lively and dynamic, with its punch coming mostly from musical cues, hard rock songs, and typical ‘sudden noise’ effects sprinkled throughout.  Discreet rear channel usage is scarce; the back stage mostly serves to create a circular ambience with the music and effects.  The .1 channel mostly drives the music.  Dialogue is clear throughout, and the sound is crisp and noise-free all the way.

Features ****

Like the first film, the sequel represents another well-packaged disc from Artisan.  It starts with the aforementioned commentary track by the director, which is quite interesting from the point of view that the film he had in mind and the one that made it out were different in many respects.  There is also an isolated music track with isolated comments by composer Carter Burwell.  There are production notes, talent files, and DVD ROM extras, plus a rather intriguing explanation of “The Secret of Esrever”.  Turns out, there are hidden words and images hidden throughout the film.  This clip demonstrates that fact, and gives you clues as to the 5 places in the movie you need to keep your eyes open for in order to spot them.  I’ve found two so far, so I need to keep looking.

This disc marks the first ever DVD+CD presentation.  Side one contains the movie and movie extras.  Side two is a standard CD recording of the complete score and three songs from the film, including a live track.  The CD side will actually work in your home stereo’s CD player (though the box recommends not using it in car’s player).  This is a unique concept for the future of DVD, and might be an indicator of things to come!

Summary:

Book of Shadows doesn’t deliver on the promise of The Blair Witch Project, and will sadly be remembered only as another horror sequel bust.  Those who loved the first film will find nothing in the second that resembles what they originally loved about the concept.