Although it must have been a no-brainer to make a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, it was hard to imagine an intelligent follow-up to a film that culminated in the apparent death of all the principals. Romeo and Juliet 2, anyone? Hamlet Returns? (Note to Hollywood execs: I demand credit if you ever actually greenlight movies with those titles.) But given the inevitability of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, one could have expected little more than yet another faux documentary about people going into the woods to find the previous crew, only to get similarly lost. Alternately, perhaps a sequel could have addressed the complaints of those who loathed the first film for its minimalism and featured a state-of-the-art CG witch who flies out of the woods at night to impale naked teenagers on sticks. Fortunately, neither approach was taken.
What does emerge onscreen is far more conceptually ambitious and, although not entirely successful, at least deserves points for creativity. Joe Berlinger, co-director of the Paradise Lost documentaries about three goth-metalhead teens convicted -- probably falsely -- of child murder, has teamed up with screenwriter Dick Beebe (of the wretched House on Haunted Hill remake last year) to give us a sequel that acknowledges its predecessor as fiction. This is the sequel's most innovative twist, but it gets somewhat murky when it becomes clear that the mythology of the witch and her curse is still supposed to be taken at face value, thereby rendering the "evidence" created for the Curse of the Blair Witch TV special (such as footage of the fictitious child-killing hermit Rustin Parr) "real" but the special's references to the film crew "fake." In other words, it's not clear that the premise consistently holds up under geeklike levels of scrutiny. Further muddying the waters is an opening disclaimer calling the film a "fictionalized re-enactment" in which "some names have been changed." In fact, none has: Book of Shadows continues the original film's tactic of giving its major characters the same names as the actors who play them.
Following the would-be disclaimer is a series of documentary clips, initially real ones of Roger Ebert and others talking about the first film, followed by created footage of Burkittsville, Md., being overrun with annoying fans. These clips include one of an elderly woman who sells the rocks in her backyard to tourists and laments that she can't peddle them on the Internet as well because "it costs too much to ship a rock." Gradually, the clips start to center on a stoned-looking doofus named Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan) who sells bags of "official Blair dirt" on eBay and experiences soul-bonding with tourists over their mutual experience of the first film. Next, in order to emphasize that this is not the original Blair Witch, we cut to a sweeping helicopter shot over the woods, interspliced with brief images of torture and bondage and scored with a brand-new Marilyn Manson song. (Curiously, neither this song nor the closing number from Poe appears on the tie-in soundtrack album; Manson, who executive-produced the disc, has instead substituted his own cover of the M*A*S*H theme song "Suicide Is Painless.")
The mood thus established, we come back to Jeff, who is now leading a vanload of four tourists on a trek into the woods to see the locations depicted in the first film. There's Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and his pregnant girlfriend, Tristen (Tristine Skyler), a couple researching a new book on the Blair Witch phenomenon -- he calls it all a mass delusion, whereas she argues that "perception is reality," thus setting up the theme of the entire film; Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a Wiccan who believes that the Blair Witch has been maligned all these years ("She was an earth child, like me. She's gonna be my mentor") and likes to light incense, talk to ferns and chant flaky-sounding mantras like "By earth and fire and water and smoke, Persephone I invoke"; and, finally, Kim (Kim Director), a prototypical goth chick with minor psychic abilities and impeccably applied makeup that stays impeccable far longer than it ought to. And Jeff has a secret: It's established early on that he spent time in a mental institution.
Anyway, the first stop on the trip is the ruined foundation of Rustin Parr's cabin. Setting up camp for the night, along with a multitude of video cameras just in case anything weird happens, the group proceeds to get drunk and stoned around the campfire while discussing the first film.
All of a sudden, it's day. The quintet discovers that the cameras are smashed and Tristen and Stephen's notes shredded. It transpires that they've all been unconscious, or at least unaware of their own actions, for about five hours. And Tristen is dripping blood; a dream about drowning her fetus seems to have induced an actual miscarriage. After a brief stay at the local hospital, Jeff and company return to his home. As they proceed to analyze their footage for clues about the five lost hours, creepy stuff starts happening. Is it all an intense series of mass delusions? Or has the curse of the Blair Witch struck?
The cue for what follows is taken from David Lynch's Lost Highway, notably the scene from that film in which Bill Pullman expresses his hatred for camcorders because he likes to remember things "the way I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened," shortly before being convicted for a crime that appears to exist only on video. The paradigm of video always telling the truth is brought into question again and again here, as is the nature of reality.
It's impossible not to think back to Paradise Lost while watching, and not just because of Kim's line "People think that because I dress in black I'm some kind of sick killer." Berlinger has admitted that he thought the accused teens were guilty until he actually began making that film; Book of Shadows at times resembles a fictional retelling of the same story in which the accused are both real occultists and likely killers. And the titular book isn't present anywhere in this film, but it was one of the tomes found in the possession of Damian Echols in Paradise Lost.
To say that Book of Shadows is interesting may be damning with faint praise, but that really is the best word for it. It's different but not really suspenseful: The narrative jumps backward and forward in time in such a way as to pretty much reveal who's going to live or die. It's not too scary, either, although there are moments of creepiness, there's blood and gore, and Erica frequently gets naked.
It doesn't help matters that the characters are pursued by a local sheriff resembling the bastard hybrzid of Yosemite Sam and the late Brion James. None of the leads is even all that sympathetic; only Kim comes off as likable, and that may depend on one's tolerance for spooky goth girls. The film is undeniably unique in today's teen-suspense climate, but it also brings to mind the far superior In the Mouth of Madness, a little-seen John Carpenter masterpiece scripted by New Line chief Michael DeLuca. It's not only a better horror head trip, it's also proof that studio chiefs aren't all dummies.