How do you make a film that follows on from the enormous success of The Blair Witch Project? You can either do it all over again, but show everything instead of showing nothing and throw in lots of jump scares (as Adam Wingard did) or you can take a radically different approach, instead choosing to comment on the reaction to the first film and the way in which everyone so easily believed that it was based on a truth, a blind acceptance of media in an age that had shown media manipulation to now be as easy as making yourself a packed lunch for work.
The focus of the plot here seems to be a bunch of people who head out to take a tour of the woods near Burkitsville (location of the first movie). They're being shown around by Jeffrey (Jeffrey Donovan), who has previously spent some time in a mental health facility. The main characters are Tristen (played by Tristen Skyler, known nowadays as Tristine Skyler), her partner Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner), a goth girl named Kim (Kim Director), and a white witchy woman named Erica (Erica Leerhsen).
That's the plot, but it's not what the film is about. As things start to develop, things become more and more meta, spiralling in on itself like a snake trying to devour it's tail. For anyone wondering why Joe Berlinger (better known for his documentaries at this point) would even want to direct this, from a script he co-wrote with Dick Beebe, it soon becomes obvious when the story being depicted onscreen starts to fragment and weave in and out of any narrative strand that makes sense.
There may have been some (a lot?) of studio interference here, seeming to be most obvious in a few of the more standard scare moments, but the bad doesn't outweigh the good, despite the reputation that this film gained, a reputation I personally put down to that Halloween III: Season Of The Witch effect. Fans decided that they would rather have more of the same than something that took them on a very different stroll through the woods. Berlinger knows that, and perhaps makes it easier for critics to savage the film by slyly setting up to look as if they will play out that way before pulling the rug out from everyone. It is, to me, why I also enjoy the lack of subtlety in the opening act: clips with Burkitsville locals that echo the early footage from the first movie, the immediate reveal of the character who has had mental health problems, the assembly of the core group of stereotypes, the opening credits having "Disposable Teens" over the top of them. It also wouldn't have helped that the film is, essentially, a slap in the face to everyone who absolutely bought into the hype for The Blair Witch Project. It's a movie version of someone waving their hands around and shouting "you believed this? You actually thought this was real???"
It used to be said that the camera never lies, but it's also said that the camera adds ten pounds to your weight. Nowadays, neither of those statements seem correct. The camera almost always lies, either depending on how the image is manipulated or how the context is twisted or hidden. That has grown exponentially in the internet age and, for me, that is what the book of shadows refers to. The internet. A place where every "page" has the potential to captivate someone and change their mind about something. A place where you can challenge yourself or find plenty to support your own beliefs, whatever they may be. It's out there, a worldwide spell cast by all of us, without any limits in place, and it's important to remember that with every single click we make, both as a user and a creator.
The script may not be as sharp or smart as it could be, and the direction is a bit messy at times, but the biggest weakness here is the cast. Aside from Donovan and Director, and Lanny Flaherty (playing a local Sheriff), the performances range from embarrassingly bad to just about tolerable. Leerhsen is the worst offender, but there are a number of times when Turner and Skyler do their best to match her.
Despite these imperfections, Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 holds up for me as a smart and sophisticated horror movie. I encourage people to revisit it, or finally give it a watch for the first time. You're unlikely to enjoy it as much as I do, but I hope that it might one day rise above the unwarranted bad reputation that has been attached to it since it was initially released.
Anyone else who likes the movie can buy it here.
Americans can pick it up here.