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An admirable and often impressive attempt to do something different, but like its predecessor, it falls short of the hype.

By Steve Biodrowski     October 26, 2000

Once upon a time, there was a Little Movie That Could, called The Blair Witch Project. It was a lot like other little movies you might see at an art house theatreso good that you wished it would reach a wider audience. Thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign, Blair Witch actually did reach a wider audiencemuch, much wider than most low-budget independent films; in fact, it reversed the usual equation, gaining far more attention than it deserved, rather than far less. That statement is not meant to denigrate the film itself, but the truth is that the Blair Witch phenomenon soon became bigger than the film itself. And now we have a sequel...

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is not a slavishly imitative sequel. Instead, it builds upon the foundation of the original film, using a far bigger budget and slicker production values, while reusing some of the elements that made the first film workparticularly, strong performances and dialogue that create a pressure-cooker situation portraying a group of characters disintegrating under extreme duress. But in the effort to recapture some of the feeling of the original, Blair 2 falls prey to some of the same mistakes, namely the feeling that the whole experience is one long tease with only an anti-climactic payoff. You won't really find out much of anything that you didn't know at the end of the first film; you'll just get another elaboration of the concept that some really, really weird shit goes in the Black Hills Forest.

This time out, we're not supposed to be watching a documentary but a 'dramatization' of actual events. This allows director Joe Berlinger to utilize such cinematic elements as multiple camera angles, montage, music, and helicopter shots. This slick approach immediately distinguishes the film from its predecessor and gives it its own identity. Things start off promising, with actual video clips of real-life television shows reporting on the first film, followed by 'documentary' footage of fans infesting the locations. (One fine, funny moment has the local sheriff bellowing through a bullhorn: 'Get out of the woods! There is no goddamn Blair Witch!') For a while, it seems that Book of Shadows will be making some kind of commentary on the Blair Witch Phenomenon; unfortunately, this idea is soon relegated to the background as the new story takes over. From that point on, we're into a fairly traditional horror film (young, good-looking kids menaced in the woods), simply handled much better than most.

A group of characters take a tour, called 'The Blair Witch Hunt,' of the woods where the events of the first film supposedly took place. In an amusing turn of events, they encounter a competing guided tour called 'The Blair Witch Walk,' leading to a brief face off before the second group is fooled into visiting Coffin Rock. Our group settles down for the night, but they wake up the next morning to find all their equipment destroyed, except for some videotapes and DVD-roms that may hold the answer to certain mysteriessuch as what happened during the five-hour period when all of them, apparently, blacked out simultaneously. Showing some intelligence, they quickly get out of the woods and head back to the home of their tour guidean abandoned warehouse. In this isolated location, they begin seeing visions, loosing their tempers, and turning on each other...until violenceof one sort or anotherbreaks out.

[Spoiler alert] It's all pretty interesting until just past the halfway point when we learn that the tourists on the 'Blair Witch Walk' were all killed that night. With the incessant flash cutting of knives and bloodindicating dreams or nightmares that our lead characters have been experiencing since that nightyou don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what they were really doing during those missing hours, but much of the rest of the film is devoted to watching the characters catch up to what we've already guessed. After that, there's not much else to do except try to find someone among them to blame as the instigator, so that the others may feel less responsible. Is this all the work of the Blair Witch, or are our characters sinking into madness and delusion?

The film doesn't really say; it just leaves you with the two possible interpretations. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does result in a 'so what?' feel to the finish. Along the way, there are some noises made about the Blair Witch having actually been an innocent victim of mob hysteria, which would seem to lead credence to the 'madness and/or hysteria' explanation for the events in this film (and possible for the events in the first film as well). However, Blair 2 doesn't build its case very well, as it's not told from a single perspective. If madness is the answer, then most or all of the characters must have been sharing the same delusionsboth victims and victimizers. (Curiously, gratuitous flashbacks show us one of the characters in an asylum a year ago, but he seems no more unstable than the rest of the group, so what's the point? To show that he had an alibi for the first film, the events of which occurred around the time he was incarcerated?) This does create some odd results. One character, who is planning to co-author a book called Blair Witch: Hysteria or History?, keeps insisting (in the time honored tradition of horror films) that there must be a rational explanation. Are we, in the end, to assume that he was right, even though the film expects us to treat his statements with derision throughout most of the running time?

Perhaps this is simply the inevitable result when someone attempts to build a story around misdirection and suggestion. Book of Shadows works within the great tradition of ghost stories pioneered by J. Sheridan LeFanu and M.R. James, wherein the supernatural intruded gradually and suddenly, often irrationally. One great thing about many of those stories was that the unexplained seemed threatening, even malevolent, but often without a clear motivation. This lack of explanation increased the terror, because there was little or no way to make sense of itno way to figure it out and avoid it.

Another great thing about those stories is that they were usually shortit's hard to sustain that kind of atmospheric dread for an extended period and tell a dramatic story at the same time. Both Blair Witch movies perfectly capture that sense of unknowable menace, of a threat both mysterious and unexplained. But with feature-length running times, they also have to tell storiesstories that are left, in large part, unresolved in order to maintain the sense of mystery. This worked the first time, but trying it a second time is really asking a lot of forgiveness from the audience. If there are any more sequels, let's hope the filmmakers find a new card to play.

Compared to the lion's share of recent horror films (Bless the Child, Urban Legends: Final Cut, Lost Souls), Book of Shadows is a relative masterpiece. On the most basic level, the film works: it does inspire fear and suspense; it does suggest horror around each new corner, leaving you to dread what will happen next, even when not too much is actually happening; and it shows more than the first film, but for the most part it does not show too much, using flash cuts and handheld cameras to keep you glimpsing the more terrible events in the blink of an eye.

In short, the craftsmanship and performances on display are all impressive, and the film does hold your attention from beginning to end. But ripped from the context created by the first film and the phenomenon that followed, Books of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is merely an above average, moderately entertaining horror film, not a major event in cinema. If you were disappointed by the first one, there's not much here to convert you, but if you're curious, you might want to check it out anyway. You could do worse.

Read another review of Book of Shadows in our Smilin' Jack Ruby Fandomain!.

There is also a review of this film in our Horror Fandomain!

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