‘You can’t go forward until you go back…’
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 – aka Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows – is a 2000 American psychological horror feature film directed and co-written by Joe Berlinger. The movie stars Jeffrey Donovan, Kim Director, Tristine Skyler and Erica Leerhsen.
The film was immediately greenlit upon pitch due to the surprising success of its predecessor, the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project. Stylistically different from the first film, the story revolves around a group of people fascinated by the mythology surrounding The Blair Witch Project movie; they go into the Black Hills where the original film was shot, and we witness their subsequent psychological unravelling.
Originally conceived as a psychological thriller and meditation on mass hysteria, Artisan Entertainment re-cut Berlinger’s film, altering the soundtrack as well as making editing changes. The footage of the main characters murdering the foreign tourists was shot just weeks prior to the release date and was incorporated in the film to add more visual violence.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released to largely negative reviews from critics and audiences; however, it was a reasonably good financial success, grossing $47 million worldwide against its $15 million budget.
The original 1999 Blair Witch Project has not aged terribly well, partially because its found-footage horror gimmick has been copied repeatedly and aggravatingly ever since, by filmmakers at various levels of competence, ranging from the very good, such as Cloverfield, to the so-so to the wretched, such as… oh, way too many to mention.
Figures vary, but estimates are that making the original Blair Witch Project cost its maverick young team the equivalent of a new-car purchase, some $20,000 to $30,000. The resulting box-office sensation returned something north of $100 million. A quickly made sequel was just as foredoomed here as any callow young scripted characters traipsing around dark woods looking for a legendary supernatural killer.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 could have been called Blair Witch 2.5, should one take into account the pre-existing mockumentary short feature Curse of the Blair Witch, quickly aired on cable TV, as a epilogue/prequel to tweak those few young, ignorant viewers in the early era of the “viral video” and Sundance Film Festival hype, who still clung to the notion originally pandered by the ad campaigns that the Blair Witch material was an actual disappearance case and that the story was completely true. Yes, there were such naive folk around back in 1999. I tend to think a lot of them went on to get newsroom jobs in the media.)
Book of Shadows thus entered movie houses as a new peg of the franchise tent-pole in time for Halloween, 2000.
The $15 million BW2 dropped the documentary approach of the first feature for a straightforward but oh-so-clever post-modern narrative, punctuated by flashbacks and forwards, shock cuts and MTV-music-video style editing. The setting is November 1999, the apex of Blair Witch hysteria. Sightseers and souvenir-hunters tramp all throughout the scrub of rural Maryland looking for evidence of their new favourite scare flick and such is the slightly smug tongue-in-cheek attitude initially that one expects a cameo by terminally dumb Jay and Silent Bob (which Scream 3 actually did).
Jeffrey Donovan is ‘Jeff,’ a Maryland slacker who peddles Blair Witch junk over the internet and offers tours. Joining him for an outing are documentary filmmakers/lovers Tristen (Tristine Skyler) and Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and pretentious `Wiccans’ Kim (Kim Director) and Erica (Erica Leerhsen). The protagonists camp in supposed ruins once the dwelling of 18th-century witch Elly Kedward, aka the Blair Witch, whose curse reputedly caused murder and maledictions the past 200 years.
The drugs come out, and – a legitimately spooky moment – they wake up to find their camp in shambles. Worse, pregnant Tristen miscarries, and a bloody massacre has ensued nearby. Jeff shepherds everyone to his HQ in the woods, a creepy mill out of Edgar Allan Poe, rewired and outfitted with his editing suite (!) to decipher, from salvaged video, what happened the previous night.
Note the attempts to replicate the original Blair Witch formula in search of the same box-office magic spell: unknown actors cast under their own names, and instead of original filmmakers Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez (now billed as executive producers), the gambit in trying to catch Blair Witch lightning in a bottle a second time was to hire as director one Joe Berlinger – a legitimate documentarian.
See, if fiction-makers pretending to be documentarians struck a bonanza, imagine the payoff using a documentarian to make a meta-fiction! So went the philosophy, anyhow.
And Joe Berlinger’s cinematic repute, in fact, rested on a transfixing series of true-crime features initiated with Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills (1996), chronicling a haunting case in which a rural American community convicted three non-conformist young males with “Goth” aspects of having perpetrated a horrific, possibly occult-inspired killing spree. Berlinger’s narrative made the case a cause celebre and raised questions of guilt, xenophobia and miscarriages of justice (rather than fetuses).
So in theory, Book of Shadows should have been interesting. Berlinger told a reporter at the time he was even toying with a thematic subversion of the whole point of Paradise Lost: Maybe those churchy townsfolk were absolutely correct, and what if confused, outcast and gloomy young people who dress in black and identify with the macabre… really are demon-affiliated killers after all?
Unfortunately, in practice, there’s not much here on the screen to really engage outside the familiar dead-kids tropes. As in any given Friday the 13th slasher-film takeoff, glib and callow characters do silly and senseless things to bring on their fates. They make rash assumptions, see things that aren’t there, and turn on each other in a climate of fear and suspicion.
At a certain point, it becomes clear what the game is: nothing that the victims see (thus, that we see) can be trusted. Perhaps the vengeful Blair Witch is supernaturally bending reality (as Freddy Krueger did with more panache). Perhaps the ensemble is all just mass-hallucinating, drugged-up loons. Either way, once doubts set in over the storyline, one’s emotional investment starts to ebb and the film begins to look very much like the hollow commercial venture that it is. And apparently the studio, hedging their bets against Berlinger’s mise-en-scene, inserted gore, special effects and shock stuff against the director’s judgment.
As Book of Shadows failed to generate ticket sales in excess of, say, $30 billion (the math of the original hit not translating), interest in the Blair Witch mythology rapidly deflated, but that did not prevent a fresh visit to wring more cash out of the premise in 2016 with Blair Witch.
Still, this 2000 sequel killed off the parade of inevitable branded sequels for more than a dozen years, and – to badly paraphrase one of my favourite quotes by Lemmy from Motörhead – that is something that can be said in its favour.
Charles Cassady Jr. – MOVIES & MANIA
“Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is a not a very lucid piece of filmmaking (and contains no Book of Shadows). I suppose it seems clear enough to Berlinger, who co-wrote it and helped edit it, but one viewing is not enough to make the material clear, and the material is not intriguing enough, alas, to inspire a second viewing.” RogerEbert.com
“Book of Shadows might almost be the sequel to the website; it tramples on suggestiveness, on any hint that supernatural mischief can’t be known. The real demon, the film says, is us. Actually, the only thing vaguely demonic here is the ease with which a movie as scary and original as The Blair Witch Project can be downloaded into oblivion and compressed into this week’s product.” Entertainment Weekly
“Even when Book of Shadows isn’t patting itself on the back, it’s displaying its paucity of imagination with easy allusions to past horror flicks: The Omen, The Exorcist and Night of the Living Dead. Eeesh. That tendency to cannibalize and sample from other horror flicks, made popular by the “Scream” series, is worse than dull. It’s parasitic.” San Francisco Chronicle
“In Book of Shadows, Berlinger took his hatred of the first movie’s dishonesty and made an entire film out of it, commenting on the danger of blurring the line between fiction and reality. Had Artisan stayed out of the edit bay and let the man do his job, perhaps Book of Shadows could have been something truly special.” Bloody Disgusting (May 2016)
“It was the Artisan reshoots that added an inexplicable framing device of sorts involving Jeff’s history in a torture-prone mental hospital. Even with this nonsense, one can see interesting ideas about possession, filmmaking, and belief littered throughout, but the narrative is overworked to the point that no concept or storyline really gains much momentum.” Collider
“Blair Witch 2 was a controversial sequel to a film that already sparked enough controversy on its own. Book of Shadows, if for nothing else, takes an interesting path for a franchise that could just have as easily turned down Straight-To-DVD-Rehash Boulevard, but it tried something a little different, putting the character in a world where The Blair Witch Project actually exists.” Film School Rejects
Cast and characters:
- Kim Director as Kim Diamond
- Jeffrey Donovan as Jeffrey Patterson
- Erica Leerhsen as Erica Geerson
- Tristine Skyler as Tristen Ryler
- Stephen Barker Turner as Stephen Ryan Parker
- Lanny Flaherty as Sheriff Ronald Cravens
- Lauren Hulsey as Eileen Treacle
- Raynor Scheine as Rustin Parr
- Kennen Sisco as Peggy
Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard appear in archival footage as fictionalised versions of themselves.